In Epfenhausen near Landsberg am Lech, Nikolai Birnbaum breeds extremely fine fish and caviar, which are often served in Munich’s top restaurants – but can also be enjoyed at home. We watched him at work. From Klaus Mergel (text) and Toby Binder (photos)
Lord of the chars
Living and working in the same place: many people find that hard to do, as a home office brings its own downsides. For Nikolai Birnbaum, however, it is essential. He works among the ponds, the fish, in nature itself. Birnbaum - or Niki, as he is usually called - lives with his fish and his job, and loves them both.
The Birnbaum fish farm in Epfenhausen is a special place, where there is a constant flow of burbling water. Some of the fish that are grown here end up on the plates of cordon bleu restaurants - but many others are enjoyed by “normal” fish eaters.
Clad in rubber boots and waders, Birnbaum moves confidently across the mud and grass between his ponds. He spends his whole day in his boots, taking them off only at mealtimes. “When my boots get a hole in them, it gets unpleasant,” he says. Born in 1970, this fish farmer took over the operation from his father Karl-Heinz in 1996.
Very important: plenty of fresh spring water
“They used to call us Fischzuchtmeister [fish disciplinarians],” he says with a laugh. “That sounds weird.” The farm, which has been in existence for around a hundred years, was run by his father from 1960: 20 ponds on a 2.5 hectare site.
What the father started, the son carried on, taking an increasingly professional approach. But without making it all about growth and sales: “I only take out those fish that are just right. I don’t kill more than my customers need.” It’s certainly a maxim for sustainability, possibly a key component of his success.
60 litres of fresh water per second
The ponds are fed by pure spring water. “That means we get a flow rate of 60 litres per second,” explains Birnbaum. “Our fish like the fact they always have fresh water.” Birnbaum and his wife, Angela, are constantly on the go - illustrated by the fact they hardly ever manage to answer the phone during the day.
Sliding into the carp pond
You soon get a sense of the passion behind it all. Lots and lots of passion. After all, Birnbaum even built his house on the premises, right next to one of the ponds. He is thrilled whenever anyone assumes his house - guarded with loud quacks by a pet duck called Emil - dates back to the Wilhelminian era. It is, in fact, less than 20 years old. But it looks historic.
“In summer it’s fantastic to slide down into the water first thing in the morning"
The real highlight is the slide that goes from the terrace straight into the carp pond. “In summer it’s fantastic to slide down into the water first thing in the morning,” he says. And why not? After all, the fish love it in there.
Six species of trout and char
As well as carp, the ponds are home to all manner of salmonids: rainbow trout, brown trout, salmon trout, sea trout, tiger trout and golden trout. “However we mostly farm char, which make up around 40 to 50 percent of our stocks.”
Exactly: the legendary char, which also lives happily in Lake Ammersee. If you can afford it, you can try one of Birnbaum’s chars in Munich’s “Tantris”, or the gourmet restaurant “Alois” in “Dallmayr”, or Bobby Bräuer’s “EssZimmer” in BMW Welt.
But you don’t need to do that. It is also served in the down-to-earth “Nonnenbräu” in Landsberg, and the “Landhotel Hipp” in Hofstetten. Plus you can buy fish directly from Birnbaum and cook it yourself at home. “We take a totally democratic approach”, says Birnbaum.
Char caviar instead of Beluga
His fish farm also has pike, catfish, huchen (Danube salmon) and, in smaller numbers, pike perch and sturgeon. And the coveted char caviar, which connoisseurs liken to Beluga. For animal lovers, there are the fry of whiting, roach and by-catch from the carp ponds. He simply doesn’t have enough space to grow all the fish that are spawned in his ponds.
As romantic as this life by the water may sound, it involves relentless hard work. And it’s not always very pleasant work either: the water is icy cold, which plays havoc with Birnbaum’s hands.
Every day, whatever the weather, they have to feed the fish, catch them, kill them, fillet them, prepare them for smoking or put them in the freezer. And make fish salads to sell in the farm shop. That was crucial to their survival during the coronavirus pandemic, when restaurants had to close.
Family life? Mmhh!
The farm employs between six and nine people, and Birnbaum’s wife Angela is constantly on the move too. Family life? “That has somehow become inextricably entwined with the business,” she says.
No wonder that the next generation is already getting involved. Daughter Lea Birnbaum is a qualified fish farmer, who learned her trade away from home. She has now been back working in the family business for three years. She hopes to make her own mark there one day. At that point, perhaps Niki Birnbaum will have more time to indulge his hobby: angling.
More about the Birnbaum fish farm: fischzucht-birnbaum.de (only in German)