Everyone knows it and everyone loves it: The Munich food market, known locally as the Viktualienmarkt. This is the place in the city where people, colours, smells and sounds all come together. But who has ever spent a full day here? An insight into a Munich institution.
This is the most beautiful time of the day for early risers. At half past four in the morning, when the moon and the sun are still fighting each other for dominance, Tamara Karnoll opens up her stall and switches on the oven. The first batch of pretzels have to be crisped up.
Ms Karnoll is still more or less on her own at the food market at this time of the day. Everything is in a state of sleep and most people are still in bed. Ms Karnoll is still more or less on her own at the food market at this time of the day. Everything is in a state of sleep and most people are still in bed. This is the life I have known since my childhood, she says. In those days her father always brought her to the food market with him. “It is a lovely time when everything is waking up slowly.”
The Viktualienmarkt is a Munich institution: A meeting place for people, for smells, colours and sounds. And for stories. Most people, however, only ever hear a snatch of these stories, for a couple of minutes, at best one or two hours and then their visit here is over.
Viktualien, like the English “victuals” is an old word for food. In the 19th Century the educated middle classes loved latinising concepts because it made them sound more refined. Thus what had previously been known as the “Green Market” became the “Victuals Market.”
But it is well worth spending more time here. There is probably nowhere else in the city where you can discover so much in such a confined space and there is certainly nowhere else where Munich lets you look so deeply into its soul.
“Karnoll’s Back- und Kaffestandl” (Pastry and Coffee Stall) has been in business since 1974 when Tamara Karnoll took over the running of her father’s business. She pours out the first cups of coffee towards 6 a.m. And she dispenses the chat with it for free. In years gone by it was mainly the traders from the other stalls who waited at the Karnoll kiosk for their morning coffee at this hour of the morning. Most of them have now put back the opening times of their own stalls, however. “They don’t need a cup of coffee at 6 a.m. any more”, says Ms Karnoll and laughs.
She nonetheless still has plenty of regular customers. Lots of people who have to go into their office or workshop early come to me if they need something to help them wake up. On one side of her stall is the coffee and on the second are the pretzels and bread rolls. On the third side a few bistro tables await the visitors. At some point on this Friday, however, the rest of the market begins to wake up, very slowly.
In German the food market is known as the Viktualienmarkt. Viktualien, like the English “victuals” is an old word for food. In the 19th Century the educated middle classes loved latinising concepts because it made them sound more refined. Thus what had previously been known as the “Green Market” became the “Victuals Market.” Even today the market still sells almost only food and flowers but it does have many specialities to offer. Like those which Rifat Özbilban sells, for example.
He opens up every day between eight and nine o’clock, “depending on how things go“, as he says. His stall practically disappears in the profusion of people, colours and smells But there was still space enough for goodies to eat: Nuts and dried fruit. Özbilban’s stand is probably the most international stand on the whole market. Almost every type of fruit or nut which he sells comes from another country: Walnuts from Chile, kiwis from Iran, cranberries from Canada of dates from Turkey.
Özbilban buys his stocks from wholesalers. As he says, it would be too complicated to manufacture everything himself. “A lot of things have to be dried in the sun and you just can’t do that here.” To ensure that everything is nonetheless of the right quality, Özbilban samples every delivery before it goes on display in the shop.
One by one the traders open up for business. In the mornings there are not so many people buying things so there is time to tidy up the stall properly, to clean the produce and to have a chat with the neighbours. In the beer garden and at tables outside the neighbouring taverns the first visitors meet for pre-lunch drinks and to top up their suntans.
A group of tourists has set off to see the sights and a tour guide gives them some insights into Munich’s soul. In mere figures, the market can be described thus: 22,000 square metres of floorspace, more than 200 years of tradition, around 140 stalls, seven fountains and a maypole. The guide points to the ground and the tourists stare at the paving stones. “There are cellars underneath the whole of the Viktualienmarkt”, he explains.
“Directly underneath us there are four big tanks and pipes go from there up to the beer garden and the bars. We change the beer in the barrels every five to six weeks, there is no need for any of the breweries in Munich to get worried”, he says. A board at the bar provides information: Today it is Löwenbräu’s turn to be sold.
There are lots of customers to be served around midday. Office staff and workers drop in for a bite to eat at the Viktualienmarkt. There is a large selection of produce but decisions are quickly made and many people have their own favourite butcher. At Markus Reitmayer’s game and poultry butcher’s stall, with its white tiles and deer antlers on the wall, time seems to have come to a standstill.
The display cabinet contains beef and pork loaf made from game and Brühpolnisch sausages from venison and behind the counter stands the sales assistant Michaela Lutz. “Each day is different“, says Ms Lutz. As if to prove the truth of this statement, a female customer comes in who by way of exception is planning a five-course meal for six people. She has neatly written down all the ingredients she needs on a piece of paper and some of these have already been ticked off. For her fifth course, rabbit with spring vegetables, she needs five joints of meat.
There is a short discussion on the best way to prepare this meal. “I come here because I know that all the produce comes from Bavaria”, the woman says before she has to move on to the next stall. She still has to get a few more of the ingredients on her list.
Anyone who wants to escape from the hustle and bustle in the afternoons has to look up to the sky. Next to the Viktualienmarkt, the tower of St Peter’s Church reaches up into the sky. “Der Alte Peter” stands on hallowed ground and the city’s first cemetery once surrounded the church. A few gravestones which have been attached to the wall like posters bear testimony to this now.
The church has been modified many times over the 800 years of its history. Nobody has thought to incorporate a lift into the tower and you have to climb up about 300 steps to get to the top. Many visitors are out of breath by the time they get to the top but when they get there the whole of the city is spread out beneath their feet.
When the Föhn wind blows the eye can see as far as the Alps to the South. And anyone with sharp eyes can make out a peak which falls away sharply to the right. At 2,962 metres above sea-level, it is Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze. In the East of Munich flows the river Isar and in the North-West the tent-like structure of the Olympic Stadium rises up towards the sky.
4 p.m. Tamara Karnoll closes her coffee and pastry stall. Elsewhere, however, business is only just getting started for the day. Thomas Lupper tells me that Friday afternoons, together with Saturdays are the busiest times for shopping. He has had a stall on the market for many years but he thinks that it would perhaps be more appropriate to call it a sales showroom. Bright lights bathe both people and the dishes of food in a warm light. The walls are adorned with shelves with bottles of fine schnaps and wines on them. In the middle an impressive cheese counters stands majestically. In 2006 he also began to sell fine Spanish food delicacies there too.
Most of his customers are people from Munich who come to buy some tasty treats for themselves and to fill up their fridges with food. Tourists tend to reach for a bottle of schnaps instead because it is easier for them to carry it back home. What would Mr Lupper recommend as a gift? “Home-made truffle brie cheese”, he says as he places a piece of cheese carefully on a wooden plate.
This is all part of life here, taking time for a pleasant chat to talk about the things which matter. Life in a big city is often hectic and anonymous. Not at the Viktualienmarkt. You just have to join in and sometimes just let yourself go with the flow.
The hustle and bustle of the market is turning into the home straight now. Potato merchant Uwe Luber has a philosophical discussion with his customers about the right way to prepare potatoes. Irene Heller gives people advice on choosing the right mustards and sauces. And the flower sellers try to get rid of their remaining stocks of cut flowers. Rifat Özbilban thinks he has sold enough for today and clears away his nuts and fruits.
In the beer garden opposite the first customers are getting ready to enjoy their evening drinks. Two people who do not know each other have sat down with their beer tankards at the same table. It does not take long for them to start talking to one another. One of them is only there to eat. The other one comes here regularly from Allgäu in order to escape from the constraints of village life. “I simply need to be with other people“, he says.
After an hour they go their separate ways again. This is all part of life here, taking time for a pleasant chat to talk about the things which matter. Life in a big city is often hectic and anonymous. Not at the Viktualienmarkt. You just have to join in and sometimes just let yourself go with the flow.
The day ends where it began: In the Café Frischhut opposite the Schrannenhalle. In the 70s this was a popular place for people who enjoyed the night life. When people came out of the night clubs when they closed towards four in the morning they used ot go on to Manfred Fischhut’s cafe for a cup of coffee and a pastry.
Potato merchant Uwe Luber has a philosophical discussion with his customers about the right way to prepare potatoes. Irene Heller gives people advice on choosing the right mustards and sauces. Rifat Özbilban thinks he has sold enough for today and clears away his nuts and fruits.
Nowadays the clubs and the night owls have moved on towards the Sonnenstrasse and the East Railway Station. Mr Frischhut in his café, 74 years old, the scent of fresh Schmalznudeln (deep-fried pastries) and many regular customers have stayed. His colleagues bake five different types. You can watch them at work, as they constantly pull tubed noodles, Auszogne (Bavarian doughnuts) and Striezel (long plaited buns) out of the machine and put them in the display cabinets.
The secret? It is the same as in a good restaurant which sticks to a small menu. As Mr Fischhut says: “We make a small range of dishes but we make them very well.” Quality is the most important thing. Mr Fischhut takes his leave of us. He has seen a familiar face at one of the tables, that of a regular customer from the old days, the wild 1970s. Time for a chat.
Got curious? If you want to stroll around the market with an official guide and get to know and taste the traditional delicacies, it is best to book our Viktualienmarkt Tasting Tour.