January 15 2012
As luxury foodstuffs go, 50p for a dozen eggs may not seem extravagant... unless they are sturgeon eggs, in which case gourmands’ needs will stretch to quite a few dozen. There is only one thing worse than no caviar, and that is not enough caviar.
That, in fact, has been the problem for many years: there is simply not enough caviar. Overfishing of wild sturgeon led to a disastrous decline in the population and a total ban on wild caviar. Farmed caviar, meanwhile, has struggled to make up the difference, both in quantity and quality. Sturgeon mature slowly, and the art of caviar production is a little trickier to master than, say, the business of farming salmon.
The good news for fish-egg fanciers – the Gannet, unsurprisingly, is one of them – is that farmed caviar is getting better every year, something that was obvious on my recent visit to Spain’s Riofrío, an organic-sturgeon farm that sells its caviar in the UK under the Cold River brand (£55 for 30g).
It is an impressive operation located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada. I combined my visit with a tour of the sublime Alhambra, which gives the visitor an idea of how luxury was defined seven centuries ago. Its elegant gardens, fountains, palaces and courtyards tower over modern Granada, much of which hardly demonstrates progress in architecture.
The Palacio de los Patos, now a five-star Hospes hotel, is an exception: a stately 19th-century palace in Granada’s shopping district, with a few charming, rather eccentric rooms, and a starkly modern wing housing many more rooms and a good restaurant. After my mildly strenuous descent from the Alhambra I relaxed in the garden, sat in the shade and toyed with a chilly glass of gazpacho, fragrant with olive oil, shards of jamón ibérico balanced precariously on top.
The hotel also offers two- or three-night packages that include a visit to Riofrío’s farm, and a tasting in situ, while the restaurant’s menu is also biased towards caviar aficionados. On my visit, several Michelin-starred Spanish chefs were demonstrating dishes featuring Riofrío’s eggs in various guises, the predictable upshot of which was that caviar is best left alone. Serve it with blinis and soured cream if you must, but the only accessory it really needs is a mother-of-pearl spoon.
With Russian caviar, the classic match is iced vodka, which – personally – I have always found a little brutal. In Granada, however, I made an interesting discovery: Riofrío’s caviar actually goes jolly well with a glass of dry sherry. Sherry is, of course, a rather more traditional Andalusian speciality than caviar, but Hidalgo’s bitingly dry La Gitana manzanilla is a particularly fine foil for the creamy, faintly walnut-scented caviar. It has, you might say, the eggs factor.