Beethoven – Carp in black sauce


The first official record is a charter from the year 1255, but the fishmarkets of Vienna have undoubtedly a much longer tradition, and go probably as far back as the city itself. That first market known to us, on the “Fischhof”, was in 1317 moved tot the “Hoher Markt”, then as now the heart of enterprising Vienna. The management of that market was entrusted to the so called “Trögelamt”. The name is derived from the troughs (trögen) and tubs in which the fishmongers kept their wares fresh, for fish was preferably sold alive. The functionaries held office in the “Fischbrunnenhaus” (fish-well house), an edifice with arcades built over the well that supplied the fishmarket with the necessary water. For the use of the water and the troughs, the fishmongers obviously had to pay. It was a lucrative enterprise. In those by-gone days fish consumption was a lot higher than nowadays, because of the many fasting days prescribed by the church. In 1710, the building was replaced by a new “brunnenhaus” which served as billet for the city guard, until that too was torn down in 1801. Meanwhile the fishmarket was moved (in 1753) to the Schanzl, a quay along the Donaukanal (the “Donau Channel”), already the place of one of Vienna’s minor fishmarkets.

Beethoven - Carp in black sauce
The “Hoher Markt”, engraving by J.A. Delsenbach, ca. 1720. On the right the “Brunnenhaus” with the fishmongers and their troughs.

Beethoven, a lover of fish, would undoubtedly have strolled along the stalls on the Schanzl. A wide choice of native fish, about anything that could be caught or cultivated in lakes, ponds and rivers, found its way to the stalls of the vendors. Not only fish from the Danube river was sold, but from as far afield as the March, the Leitha, the Traun and the Neusiedlersee. Carp, pike, pike-perch, sturgeon, catfish, burbot, salmon, trout, eel, but also the little ones like roach, bream and gobies were sold around the year, with a dead season in summer, when most fish was spawning and was therefore not much in demand. Fish offal was also appreciated, like pike liver, which was considered a true delicacy; catfish stomach, cut in strips like tripe and cooked, or the offal and roe of carp, to this very day an indispensible ingredient of the notorious Viennese “Fischbeuschelsuppe”.

In the category fish belonged also crakes, cootes and moorhens, and otters, beavers and frogs. These were also on offer the year around, but mostly eaten on fasting days, as a substitute for the more customary kinds of meat. Especially otters and the tails of beavers were highly prized. Frogs were caught in summer and fall, and kept in cellars for use in the winter. The shellfish section comprised turtles, crayfish and snails. The fat and mellow pond turtles were preferable to the tortoises with their tough meat. Crayfish was highly appreciated, especially female animals carrying eggs. Snails were eaten mostly during fasts, and were kept between wheat.

Seafish had to be imported, was only available in the cold winter months and was so appallingly expensive that it only appeared on the tables of the very noble and the very wealthy. Seabass, tuna, sardines, cod, merling, stockfish, hering, lobster, squid, starfish, sea snails, mussels and oysters were among the delicacies Beethoven would have tasted only as a guest of one of his highborn admirers.

Beethoven - Carp in black sauce

In a conversational notebook of October 1824 Beethoven’s nephew Carl wrote “Karpfen in schwarzer sauce”: carp in black sauce. This recipe for carp is one of the oldest fish recipes of Europe. It goes back to medieval times, when people loved to bury their food under a multitude of exotic spices. That is, the people who could afford it, obviously. The recipe given here is the original medieval version. It seems to have been simplified over the ages, because the cookbooks from Beethoven’s time leave the best of the goodies out: gingerbread, jam, walnuts, almonds, raisins and plums.
For this “black carp” we have to kill the fish ourselves, because we need the blood for the sauce. So, we buy a living carp, let it swim a little in the bathtub and, when the moment has come, slaughter it on the worktop in our own kitchen.


1 carp
2 – 3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tbsp. butter
1 onion
1 carrot
1 root parsley
¼ knob celery
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. grated dark bread
½ l. dark beer or red wine
½ l. pea-broth
1 clove of garlic
6 peppercorns
1 small bay leaf
1 piece of ginger
1 pinch of thyme
a pinch of mace
½ tsp. lemon zest

4 tbsp. crumbled gingerbread
2 tbsp. redcurrant jam
10 walnuts
15 almonds
1 tbsp. raisins
8 – 10 dried plums

Put the fish upright on its belly with the aid of a kitchen towel for grip. Stun the carp by hitting it on its head, just above the eyes with a rolling pin or other heavy stick. The fish is now uncontious, but not dead. Cut the arteries by stabbing the fish with a broad knife at the bottom side of the gills transversely through the head. You can’t miss, trust me. Let it bleed over a bowl and add 2 – 3 tbsp. of vinegar to prevent the blood from coagulating. Now you can remove the scales: hold the tail with the kitchen towel, take a thin bladed knife and remove the scales by scraping with the back of the blade in the direction of the head. Make a cut over the belly from anus to head and remove the entrails, but be careful not to damage the bile. Wash the fish and cut it in 3 – 4 finger thick slices. Carp have hard bones, so it may be necessary to use your rolling pin or stick to hammer the knife through.

Chop the onion and sauté in the butter until translucent. Add the sliced/chopped/cubed root vegetables. Stir-cook for a few minutes, then add the sugar. When it starts to brown mix in the grated bread and the beer (or wine). Pour in half a liter (1 pt) of pea-broth and add chopped garlic, the carp’s blood, salt, peppercorns, bay leaf, grated ginger, thyme, mace and lemon zest. Let it simmer for 20 to 25 minutes. Now, if you want, you can add gingerbread, redcurrant jam, chopped walnuts, peeled and chopped almonds, raisins and chopped plums. Bring to taste with some lemon juice to get a nice sweet and sour balance. Let it simmer for a few minutes. Now it’s time for the slices of carp to join in. Wait until it starts to boil again, lower the heat and let it gently simmer for half an hour.

Take the slices of carp out of the sauce (careful so they won’t break) and keep warm between two soup plates. Sieve the sauce (not if you added the gingerbread and the nuts etc.), boil it down to a nice thickness, pour it over the carp and serve with bread or dumplings.


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