A lot of bones, difficult to eat: Freshwater fish is a culinary niche. But young chefs in Munich are turning char, wels catfish and pike into a true taste adventure.
When Hella Witte talks about her carp, she does so in a voice that other people reserve to talk about their children or pet cat. Hella Witte is an institution in Munich. Since 1985, she and her husband have run Fisch Witte on the Viktualienmarkt (food market), one of the best places for fish in Munich. They have everything that swims here (reflected in the shop's tagline: "If it swims, we have it"), but Hella Witte is most passionate about the carp.
The Wittes have large fishing lakes in Munich North, which are fished out in November. "The carp is such an honest fish, and intelligent too," says Witte, reaching for her phone where she has some pictures. There are photos of men in angling trousers holding carp in their arms. "The fish are so beautiful, you want to stroke them," says Witte. Witte doesn't try to hide the fact that this tender tête-à-tête won't exactly end well for the carp - she is a fishmonger after all.
"Of course we have carp at home for Christmas. And at New Year, we give all the staff carp scales, a German tradition that is thought to bring wealth."
But when she talks about 'her carp', all her affection expresses respect for the living thing. But most of all a deep intimacy: "Of course we have carp at home for Christmas. And at New Year, we give all the staff carp scales, a German tradition that is thought to bring wealth." Carp is a freshwater fish. Along with trout, it's one of the most popular native fish species. And yet freshwater fish is something for enthusiasts. "Only 15 per cent of the fish we sell is native; the rest is saltwater fish," says Witte.
Detailed figures say the same thing: trout, the most popular freshwater fish, lags far behind pollock, salmon and tuna, according to consumer statistics. Carp production has halved over the past ten years. Freshwater fish is not in fashion right now. Hella Witte has an explanation for that too: "Unlike saltwater fish, which usually comes as a fillet, freshwater fish often still has the bones in it. People panic at the thought!" Eating fish with bones requires a certain skill and technique. "Children don't learn how to do it nowadays, and even many adults don't have much idea," says Witte. Add to that a dying culinary culture. "Blue carp was once a standard dish in every home. It definitely isn't today," says Witte, immediately making it clear that's not the case in her home.
She has a tale to tell about every freshwater fish - it is her daily bread. For example the wels catfish with its barbels "that is so ugly, it's actually beautiful, and best in root vegetable stock." Or the pike, which as a predator has very firm flesh – but with a highly unique flavour. "What's the saying? A great pike! That's what we call a good person in Germany. It's very fitting," she enthuses. Hearing her talk, it's clear that freshwater fish, by which most local restaurants just mean Trout Meunière, is a culinary continent in its own right – one sadly visited all too seldom.
But that – falling turnover, increasing culinary marginalisation – is only one side of the coin. There is another. It's a delicate plant still germinating, however: freshwater fish as a mini trend. Two factors could influence it becoming a bigger trend: sustainability and regionality.
"Unlike saltwater fish, which usually comes as a fillet, freshwater fish often still has the bones in it. People panic at the thought!"
Part of this trends is, for example, the still small but growing market in Bavaria for farmed shrimps. Companies such as CrustaNova and VITAshrimp in the Munich region are farming these popular crustaceans here in Bavaria – CO2-neutrally, and without the antibiotics that most of the mass-produced shrimps from the Far East swim in. Saltwater fishermen, who are gradually expanding their range with new, fresh culinary products – for example whitefish or char, which like soused herring is fermented – are a further indication.
But this mini trend is at its most prominent in a popular young Munich restaurant: Dantler, in Obergiesing. The place belongs to Jochen Kreppel and Maximilian Sübner. At 34, Kreppel is already one of the city's most prominent chefs. He cooked up a reputation for himself primarily at Upper Eat Side which he also ran with his companion, by presenting internationally sophisticated cuisine with radical regional ingredients. Even then, freshwater fish played a key role, with the sea hardly just around the corner.
The pair opened Dantler – a Bavarian deli - two years ago: the dishes are small, diners share several plates, the wines carefully selected, the mood relaxed, but not loud, the playlist hand-picked. The Dantler is one of those restaurants of the type you see in major international cities: it targets a young audience that's prepared to pay for good food, but shies away from the stuffiness of traditional high-end restaurants.
Kreppel does precisely what Hella Witte finds unnecessary – he experiments. Witte, ever the traditionalist, believes that traditional freshwater fish dishes are best: "Trout or char meunière, blue carp, pike dumplings: less is often more with freshwater fish. I don't need trout tartare …"
But that's exactly the sort of thing on the menu at Dantler. "We don't sell freshwater fish exclusively, but that is our passion," says Kreppel. "It's primarily down to our supplier." They have the rather unusual name of Camping am Fischer and are based in St. Heinrich on Starnbergersee (lake). "The angler, Elisabeth Huber, worked in our service area. She's taking over the family business now." He very excitedly produces photos of the 28-year-old angler showing off a two-metre-long wels catfish, and giant pike. "We happily take whatever she has caught," says Kreppel.
For him, it's also about creating the maximum bandwidth of flavours from what is actually a limited repertoire of ingredients. (As mentioned: there's saltwater fish and selected international ingredients, but the focus is on regional and Bavarian).
And so he serves up soused whitefish with salted lemon. Unlike traditional soused herring, the fermented whitefish fillets are so tender that they flake on the tongue. Then there's toasted black bread with smoked eel – the "bacon of the lake" as Kreppel calls it, and raw char marinated in lime juice until it's tender, yet still firm to the bite. The roasted pike cubes with marinated vegetables are a quite special experience. The somewhat sharp and original taste of the fish comes fully to the fore. You can taste the flesh, but the whole thing is elevated to create a finely composed arrangement.
The high point of the menu – and Kreppel makes it clear it's very rare, or to be exact this is the first time he's served it, precisely because it is so rare – is whitefish caviar, almost saltless, on sour cream: small, hard mounds that delicately burst in the mouth, with flavours that draw you deep into the lake. It's all so simple, yet sophisticated at the same time, that there's a risk of finding rare fried fillet steak rather boring from now on.
And these are still the more conventional dishes that Kreppel is developing. He is quite determined to cook other, even more special, freshwater fish dishes. Wels catfish sashimi, for example: "It's a very firm flesh, unbelievably interesting on the tongue – but also rather mossy, the wels catfish is a bottom feeder after all, and you can taste that. It's more something for experts," says Kreppel.
"Now there are chasing machines that make such a fine incision in the fish that they cut through the bones, but the fillet remains intact. The short pieces of bone are edible, they are not even noticeable in the mouth."
It's clear this is someone who works very close to the source, and in this case that means: at the fishing operation. He recently learned about something new here which, while not revolutionising inland fishing, could advance it a little. "The issue with bones really is a problem, of course," admits Kreppel, in response to Hella Witte's analysis of freshwater fish fatigue. "Filleting pike is a job a lot of chefs founder on. I too prefer to leave that to our angler," he says.
But there's a lot of perch that simply can't be filleted, or rather: couldn't until now. "Now there are chasing machines that make such a fine incision in the fish that they cut through the bones, but the fillet remains intact. The short pieces of bone are edible, they are not even noticeable in the mouth." An effective tool to deal with 'bones panic' – and a further opportunity for Kreppel to bring native exoticness to the plate.
But one thing is quite clear too, and that is the big plus, but it also puts the brakes on freshwater fish cuisine: "All the fish we catch in the lake is caught wild. And no species is endangered, it all grows back again in an ecological balance," says Kreppel. Only turnips and cabbages are quite so sustainable. At the same time, a lake like this can never be farmed intensively, and there is a cap on what is taken. So freshwater fish will continue to be a niche – which is exactly as its enthusiasts like it.