Wit, according to Noël Coward, ought to be a glorious treat like caviar, not spread about like marmalade. The trouble is, that most glorious of treats has traditionally come from the roe of wild sturgeon fished in the Caspian Sea. But thanks to a disastrous combination of damming, overfishing, pollution and poaching, sturgeon populations in this deep inland sea have come close to collapse and caviar from wild fish is now mostly out of bounds.
So what can a caviar-loving girl do to satisfy her cravings for the gunmetal-grey pearls? One answer, I discovered to my surprise, is to be found not too far from me, at the Tropenhaus in Frutigen in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, where they raise sturgeon for caviar.
Farming in the Alps is nothing new. But farmed Swiss caviar? It sounds improbable – shades of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – but the project actually makes perfect sense. The USP of this all-Swiss product is sustainability. It’s down to the Lötschberg railway tunnel, which enters the Alps at Frutigen and emerges from the other side at Raron in the Valais. The icy water from melting snow and rain, which warms up to 18°C as it descends through the mountain to the tunnel below, could not be channelled directly into the River Engstligen for fear of upsetting the local wild fish population. Rather than using expensive energy to cool the water and then dispose of it, the engineers had a much more creative idea: they decided to harness its natural warmth to grow tropical plants and to farm fish. So Oona caviar was born.
At the leafy Tropenhaus Restaurant, surrounded (slightly surreally – we’re high in the Alps, remember) by banana palms, papaya trees and warm pools where the sturgeon bask, a four-course caviar menu (about £169) features the glistening black eggs served three different ways, followed by a white chocolate dessert.
You can buy to go, too, or from their website – No 103 Traditional (about £57 for 30g) is about £89 if packaged in the distinctive glass Ice Cube designed for them by the Hergiswil glass company, and which earned them a Red Dot design award.
But I like to treat myself to Les Petits Plaisirs au Caviar, which includes a teeny portion of Oona served either with hot buttered toast (about £12.95); with a soft-boiled egg; with warm waxy potatoes and flaxseed oil; or with Swedish crispbread and a creamy, honey-mustard sauce (about £14.50 each).
The portion is so minute (5g) I find it’s best to tip the pearls onto the fleshy part of your upturned hand, just at the base of the triangle formed between thumb and forefinger. After a few seconds the warmth of the skin relaxes the caviar and coaxes out the flavours. Then you lick it directly from your hand and allow the grains to subside gently onto your tongue. Expect a glorious explosion of iodised, mineral, nutty notes, a perfectly balanced salty lick and long, long flavour.