Gourmets make a pilgrimage to the Franconian Aischgrund between September and April to enjoy the region’s famous carp. The roundish shape with a high back is typical for the animals. Their meat is very healthy thanks to the many unsaturated fatty acids. By Markus Stein (text) and Tobias Gerber (photos)
“What, you’ve never eaten a carp around here?” Astonishment in the Franconian dialect at the friendly inn at “Landgasthof zur Hammerschmiede” in Gerhardshofen. The team of reporters has just outed themselves as philistines when it comes to Cyprinus carpio and its classic preparation.
For lack of opportunity? Out of shyness about the bones or the supposedly mossy taste? Whatever the case, a culinary gap in education that is to be closed with the trip to Aischgrund and with the help of landlady Daniela Schiwon.
In the restaurant kitchen, a large metal bowl is ready, filled with fine flour, semolina and “haze”, coarsely ground flour. Next to it, lined up for breading: Aischgründer carp, halved and fresh from the farm’s own pond.
Carp season? September to April
Every year, an entire region – from Bad Windsheim to Neustadt an der Aisch to Höchstadt and beyond – eagerly awaits the late summer when the floating treasure is finally retrieved from the ponds.
There are more than seven thousand ponds on both sides of the river Aisch, a good 80 kilometres long tributary of the Regnitz. The carp season lasts from September to April, from the first to the last month with “r” in the name. Enough time, then, for local gourmets and guests from out-of-town. A true feast for aficionados are the popular carp gourmet weeks in autumn.
Fasting better with carp
Carp originated in Asia and came to Central Europe with the Romans. The first drainable ponds were built 1250 years ago at the Franconian royal courts, such as the one in Riedfeld in the area of today’s Neustadt.
Carp then really took off during the heyday of the monasteries in the High Middle Ages – as a fasting dish. “At that time there were around one hundred and thirty fasting days a year!”, says tour guide Christiane Kolbet. “Fish, however, was allowed.” One can well imagine how hungry the nuns and monks were for carp!
The fasting monks could eat as much carp as they liked
A big player in the region’s fish business were the carp friends from Münchsteinach Monastery. The Benedictines grew the Lenten food in over sixty ponds. The monastery was destroyed in the Peasants’ War in 1525.
The sensational three-nave Romanesque pillar basilica of the monastery church of St. Nicholas, however, has survived the passage of time as a dusty junk room. Today, after renovation, it is the destination of Romanesque fans from all over Europe.
Ideal terrain for ponds
On the way on the carp circuit near Uehlfeld, which runs along the Egelsbach. In the valley between gentle, wooded hills, one pond follows another. The sun is hidden behind high fog, the discoloured foliage of the trees adds splashes of red-brown-yellow colour to the melancholy landscape.
Some of the waist-deep ponds have already been drained and fished out. Autumn blues lie over the valley. A grey heron sails over the heads of the visitors. A young swan rests motionless on one of the filled ponds, its gaze fixed on the group of walkers.
“Aischgrund with its impermeable clay layers is not very suitable for agriculture in large parts, but ideal for building ponds,” explains Christiane Kolbet. They are fed by flowing waters or by rain, in the latter case they are called “sky ponds”.
Carpet or chain
Over the centuries, a unique cultural landscape has developed with large pond patchworks or, very typically, long chains of ponds, sometimes kilometres long.
This allows the water to be used sparingly. When a pond is fished and emptied, the one below catches the water from the one above and is filled with it for the following year.
It can take years for the water to reach the lowest pond. A particularly beautiful example is provided by the stair-like rising ponds near Rohensaas, which were created by Nuremberg patricians in the 16th century.
The ponds are habitats for a rich variety of flora and fauna. Less welcome are hungry otters and cormorants. Tench, pike-perch and pike, among others, are used as secondary fish. Yes, that one too. “Only small specimens come in, which are not dangerous to the carp but keep them on their toes,” says the tour guide.
Mirror carp: Beautifully round
Back to the "Hammerschmiede” (hammer mill). Daniela salts the carp halves and expertly turns them in the breading until they are completely dusted. One thing is particularly important to her: “Our carp only get grain to supplement their natural food – mosquito larvae, snails or worms. Nothing else. No fishmeal, soya or other high-performance feed. They receive no medication, no antibiotics. The carp grow naturally, for three summers. There are also hardly any transport routes. You can’t get more organic than that!”
The carp grow naturally for three summers
Originally, carp were elongated and covered in scales. In the course of time, different species developed through breeding. Cyprinus carpio was literally at its best in Aischgrund.
Characteristics of the so-called mirror carp: its special “high back”, the yellowish belly and only at the very top of the back a row of scales that shine like mirrors.
Because the monks were only allowed to eat what did not protrude over the plate, carp were in demand that were shaped to fit perfectly on the round plates. Is what they say...
Tail as a crunchy delicacy
And that’s what the (half) carp Daniela serves does in exemplary fashion. Baked light brown and with its tail curled up, it occupies the round plate, not a millimetre protruding over the edge. The obligatory potato salad is served separately.
How do you eat the good stuff? First detach the large crispy tail fin with your fingers, turn it over and nibble it down to the joint. Delicious! Likewise the smaller pectoral fins. Then, using a fork and fish knife, eat the fish from the belly towards the back. Works well. It is only at the back that the nasty little Y-burrs demand concentration. If you want to, now use your fingers...
Tender, juicy, fine - and not fishy!
The carp tastes very fine, round and delicately nutty, surprisingly not at all like fish. The meat is juicy. In quality carp, the fat content is on a par with beef and contains valuable unsaturated fatty acids and vitamins.
The carp image suffers from the prejudice that its meat tastes muddy-earthy, mossy. This can happen when the fish ingest a certain type of blue-green algae. But this is rare.
To prevent this undesirable “flavouring”, the carps are kept in tanks with fresh water for days before processing; they are “drained”, as it is called.
Pilsner, Helles or a creative beer
People in Aischgrund like to drink a glass of beer with their carp. Preferably from one of the family breweries that exist here: Döbler, Windsheimer, Loscher, Hofmann or Prechtel.
On-site visit to the “Brauerei & Gasthof Zwanzger”. In the one-man business, Christian Zwanzger brews craft beer in the twelfth generation (first mentioned in 1639!). His wife Susanne runs the inn. “My grandfather grew hops himself when Aischgrund was still a hop-growing region, back in the day,” says the young brewer with the distinctive beard tied into a long plait.
In addition to the classics like Pils or Helles, the brewer likes to experiment with “creative beers”: India Pale Ale, honey beer, chocolate-strawberry stout or whatever comes to mind. Hobby brewers listen up: Christian offers brewing courses, for a day or a whole weekend.
Time travel in the open-air museum
Visitors to the Franconian Open-Air Museum in Bad Windsheim can experience brewing live. “We show how modern brewing was done 120 years ago,” says master brewer Sigi Brückler. In the old communal brewery, built around 1844, everything is done by hand.
From firing the stove with wood that heats the brew kettle to adding the hop aroma at the end. A light Zwickel or a dark Zwickel is brewed once a week, and you can drink it in the museum restaurants or in bottles to take away.
The tour through the lovingly designed open-air museum is like a journey through 700 years of Franconian everyday history. You walk past half-timbered houses, mills, country houses and barns, fields and fruit trees, streams and ponds.
Sometimes a flock of geese waddles across the path, sometimes an old tractor chugs past. Old farms complete with dung heap plus rooster on top, cowshed, pigeon house and the Swabian-Hallic country pig “Martha”. Exhibitions as well as craft demonstrations, concerts and more round off the visit.
"Aischgründer carp is an EU-protected geographical indication"
Carp sushi or carp burger?
The last word belongs to the reigning "Carp Queen" Svenja I. The young ruler comes from a family of pond keepers and has been in and out of ponds since she was a child. Her father owns eleven ponds and runs pond farming – like almost everyone in Aischgrund – as a sideline.
“Aischgründer carp is an EU-protected geographical indication, and pond farming has even been included in Germany's intangible cultural heritage,” the “Queen” proudly points out during an audience at the Demantsfürth pond. One reason for the award: feeding, pond maintenance and fishing are all done by hand in the traditional way.
Svenja I.'s favourite food is baked carp; she eats about four pieces a month on average. If you want to avoid the bones, she recommends fillets that have been cleaned of bones. There are plenty of great recipes for it nowadays – from smoked like ham to carp sausages, as carp sushi or cut into strips and deep-fried as carp crisp, in Calvadoss sauce or even as a carp burger. The best thing to do is simply come to Aischgrund yourself and bring a good appetite!