Mix fish eggs with salt.” As a recipe for one of the world’s most luxurious foodstuffs it is unsophisticated, to say the least, but that is how caviar is made. The eggs are removed from a female sturgeon, carefully passed through a sieve to remove the membrane, rinsed to clean away any impurities, then mixed with a precise amount of salt and put in tins to mature.
The sturgeon, whose eggs undergo this simple alchemy, belongs to an ancient family of fish, one of the few to survive the dinosaurs. At home in both sea and fresh water, able to withstand wide variations in temperature, armoured with bony plates called scutes (Latin for “shields”), famously long‑living (100 years or more) and often enormous (wild beluga sturgeons can weigh up to 1,500kg), the fish have hardly evolved since the Triassic period, seeing off predators with ease.
Except one: man. Overfishing has put many species on the endangered list, but sturgeon have been particularly vulnerable: unsurprising, when you consider that 1kg of beluga caviar retails for somewhere between £3,000 and £6,000.
Traditionally, the countries around the sturgeon-rich Caspian Sea – notably Russia and Iran – were the world’s leading producers of caviar, but sturgeon stocks there and across the world had dwindled to such an extent by 1998 that Cites, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, has since regulated international trade in all sturgeon species. This has resulted in a proliferation of sturgeon farms, and sales of wild caviar becoming almost non-existent.
China was particularly early on the farming scene: popular among continental European chefs for a while, the country’s caviar is now starting to be seen more and more on British restaurant menus. According to Ali Mahmoudi, CEO of Gourmet House, which has a caviar farm in Iran and co-owns a Chinese farm, “London chefs were initially sceptical, but for a number of reasons – the widest range of species, size of egg, texture, colour and price – they are now starting to use it as readily as their European counterparts.”
The good news for caviar lovers is that some of the farmed eggs now being produced in China and elsewhere are of excellent quality, the flavour indistinguishable from the best wild caviar a couple of decades ago. Production techniques have steadily improved, and species such as Huso huso (the beluga sturgeon) and Acipenser gueldenstaedtii (the Russian sturgeon responsible for oscietra) have been given the necessary time to mature.
The world of caviar used to be pretty simple: beluga, oscietra and sevruga. Now, though, these species have been joined by several others that have adapted well to farming. Stocks of Siberian sturgeon (Acipenser baerii), for instance, have been dwindling in the wild but, because the fish matures relatively early, it is popular with caviar farmers, especially in France.
Needless to say, with such a lucrative product, skulduggery is rife. Illegally harvested wild caviar can be “laundered” through fish farms, and in some eastern European markets, where wild caviar is highly esteemed, the farmed variety can be passed off as wild. Tins can be deliberately mislabelled, and there is a thriving market in empty tins that can be refilled. There are strong parallels with the fine wine trade here: it recalls the empty bottles of Château Lafite, for example, that can fetch $100 on the Chinese black market.
What, then, should the caviar aficionado look for when buying? The caviar industry’s own code of practice hardly helps: although the bottom of each tin must specify exactly when, where and from which species the caviar was made, producers can put anything they like on the front of the tin. As Laurent Dulau, CEO of Sturia, one of the best producers of Aquitaine caviar, says, “There are some quite well-known shops in London selling baerii caviar as oscietra.” Whatever it says on the front, check the back, where you will find a three-letter species code: GUE for gueldenstaedtii (oscietra), BAE for baerii, HUS for huso (beluga), and so on.
You will also find the letter C (for captive: any tin with W for wild means it is likely to be older and therefore best avoided); a code designating the country of origin (and the country of repackaging, if applicable); the date it was harvested or repackaged; a number for the producer or repackaging plant; and a lot identification number to ensure traceability.
Which is all very well, but if you are sitting in a smart restaurant and an opened tin of caviar nestled in a bowl of crushed ice is put in front of you, checking the underside is somewhat impractical. Some merchants, including Laura King of King’s Fine Food, have started putting the species name on the top label: “If you do that, it absolutely has to be what’s in the tin, and there’s no confusion.”
Assuming that a tin of caviar is what it purports to be, how do you assess its quality? According to Mahmoudi, “there were 200 tonnes of farmed caviar produced worldwide last year, which will rise to 500 tonnes over the next five years. About 20 to 30 per cent of it is good, but there are a lot of producers who don’t know how to process it correctly: they lack the proper facilities. Some of them use recycled water, for instance, which can give the caviar a muddy taste.”
Koenraad Colman, the Belgian owner of Imperial Heritage Caviar, which works extensively with sturgeon farms in the Apennine Mountains, explains that “20 of the 27 species effectively eat mud for 10 years of their lives, feeding and filtering at the bottom of lakes. The mud stays in their bodies and the caviar tastes of mud as a result.”
These specially prepared lakes have rocks and stones on the beds and small crustaceans between the rocks, which Colman says is good food for the fish: “That’s what gives the true caviar flavour.” According to King, fish from muddier waters “need to be purged for the last month of their life in free-flowing, cold, fresh water”, which should remove any muddy or musty taint, a flavour she compares with corked wine.
“Caviar shouldn’t smell of anything, except perhaps faintly of potatoes,” says Colman. “If it smells fishy, avoid it.” Every egg in a tin should be intact, so that its aromas are only released when gently crushed between the tongue and the hard palate.
Colman thinks that the gastronomic craze for “spherification” – in which liquids are mixed with alginates and dropped into a calcium solution, forming little balls that resemble caviar, a method introduced to modern gastronomy by Ferran Adrià at elBulli – has led to a misapprehension of what the texture of real caviar should be. “Spherified alginates ‘pop’ in the mouth, but this is not how caviar should behave. Beluga should have a very thin membrane and oscietra a little bit thicker, but they should be smooth on the palate.” King agrees: “If a caviar egg pops in your mouth, it’s been pasteurised.”
In appearance, says Colman, “caviar should be glossy, but not swimming in oil. And if the caviar in the tin all comes from the same fish – and it should – the colour will be uniform. If it isn’t, it’s not a good sign.”
The size of the eggs is a matter of personal taste: in any case, the huge ones for which wild beluga caviar was famous cannot be replicated in captivity. As Mahmoudi says, “In the old days, you might have caught a beluga sturgeon that was more than 100 years old.” On farms, the producer will harvest the eggs soon after the fish reaches maturity. In the beluga’s case, maturity takes at least 15 years, much longer than for other species, but even then they are not old enough to produce the size of eggs that were once so highly prized. Colman waits for the fish “to absorb her first set of eggs, then we harvest her second set. The quality of these is much higher.”
Restaurateur Gavin Rankin, the owner of Bellamy’s in Mayfair, remembers the old days well. “I was the youngest accredited caviar dealer in the world at the time, working for Caviar Kaspia. I remember going to Moscow to sign a deal with the Soviets: Russia was awash with caviar. Apart from its own production, under an ancient trading agreement it also bought two-thirds of Iran’s caviar.
“To get what we needed for the London market – about six or seven tonnes – we had to buy a lot of stuff we didn’t want and sell it to airlines or cruise ships. The quantities were extraordinary: one five-star hotel had a standing weekly order of four 1.8kg tins of beluga, and the same of oscietra… unless they rang up to increase it. To quote James Bond, the problem wasn’t getting enough caviar, it was getting enough toast to go with it. Flogging our wares in the 1980s was very glamorous and great fun.”
If those days are to be recaptured, says Dulau, “we need to innovate. As regards production, we are purists and traditionalists, but we’re not above a bit of marketing.” Sturia’s colourful tins contain a variety of caviars, some specifically aimed at younger consumers, including seasonal versions – for Christmas and Valentine’s Day – that have been matured for only a few weeks. “It’s exactly like cheese: you can enjoy it at different levels of maturity. Flavours develop as the eggs absorb the salt. Consumers entering the world of caviar can enjoy a young caviar that’s not too strong; then, as their palates become more educated, they can move on to the more mature types.”
Mahmoudi is working on presentation as well. “We’re looking at a container that can be reused, perhaps as a jewellery box. The market for caviar has traditionally been wealthy older people; we need to consider a wider age range now.” He, like his fellow producers Colman and Dulau, wants to appeal to gourmets rather than snobs.
Dulau esteems restaurants that “specifically pair various styles of caviar with different champagnes, for example, rather than just having a champagne list on the side”. King, meanwhile, plans to open her own caviar bar doing precisely that. They all encourage chefs to experiment with new ways of serving, moving away from the traditional ritual of blinis, soured cream and sieved hard-boiled egg. One such chef is Victor Garvey, patron of Covent Garden tapas bar Duende, who loves caviar’s savoury character. “I think of it as the bacon of the sea: salty, fatty and rich in umami.” One of his favourite dishes involves clarifying Ibérico pork fat, then whisking it over ice with dry sherry and Australian mountain pepper (“like black pepper, but much more floral”) and, finally, whipping caviar into the mixture, “keeping some of the eggs intact but letting some release their lovely juice”. He spreads this decadent paste on sourdough toast: “Perfect with a glass of dry sherry.”
Colman, meanwhile, collects caviar recipes from all over the world that pair caviar with luxury ingredients such as foie gras, scallops, truffles and smoked salmon, but also dishes incorporating leeks, cauliflower, sea urchin, cucumber and seaweed. There is even, as Heston Blumenthal discovered, a strange affinity between caviar and white chocolate.
But how do the experts like to eat theirs? For Mahmoudi, it is the perfect topping for a simple boiled potato; for Colman – who recommends a sip of vodka between each spoonful – scrambled eggs are a good foil; Rankin likes his with triangles of white toast and unsalted butter – “no amount of sexing it up will improve it” – and King likes hers with a soft-boiled egg.
Dulau agrees with King but would add “a couple of glasses of champagne, perhaps Blanc de Blancs, with oscietra. In bed, with your lover.” Well, he is French.