Russian Caviar since 1976
Once, I think it was 1976, I had a friend in London who decided to celebrate the sale of her house with a party. The property had been completely cleared of all furniture and pictures, and was bare except for a freezer full of iced bottles of vodka and a small table on which sat a one-kilogram jar of wild beluga caviar. There was also music from a cassette player. I sat on the freezer with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a table knife in the other that I dug into the caviar at regular intervals, and ate the sparkling black pearls from the blade. I was delusional and delusional happy. I knew then that I would never have a chance to indulge like this again. Nor have I, although God knows, tried.
This coarse, vulgar and happy indulgence did not mark the beginning of my love affair with fish eggs. I had already inherited from my father a fondness for butter-fried herring eggs, set on toast, sprinkled with lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce and sprinkled with cayenne pepper. I even came across keta (salmon roe) and Avruga (herring roe caviar). But I realized that these fruits of the fish reproductive system were a base metal the first time I tasted caviar from a sturgeon, when my uncle John brought a tin of Russian caviar of unknown origin to share with my family. I was about 11 and feeling those tiny, fragile capsules softly explode against my palate, letting the ethereal, buttery, seaweed and iodine juices roll down my throat was a moment of revelation.
My childhood infatuation turned into a real love story around 1975, when I discovered the Rivoli Bar at the Ritz. At the time, it was located under the hotel stairs and served foie gras and / or caviar sandwiches plus half a bottle of champagne for £ 5 for lunch. And when I say sandwiches I mean two slices of the best sliced white bread from the Chorleywood process with a slab of foie gras pate or a black wodge of the best Beluga stuffed between them. The bread crusts had been sliced, of course, and the slices diagonally sliced, but it was that de haut en bas combination of the pinnacle of high-end gourmet luxury and low-caste carbohydrates that proved irresistible. I almost went bankrupt giving myself these essential treats.
At the time I was not very interested in the provenance, type, quality, history or mythology of caviar. But that unlikely culinary masterpiece had to awaken a passion that I have never been able to satisfy as frequently as I would have liked. While the vodka and Beluga-fueled bachelorette party marked a highlight in terms of caviar consumption, it was only with a caviar tasting given by prominent importers, WG White, at the Connaught Hotel in 1994, that my curiosity he was seriously irritated. As part of a group of dedicated researchers (i.e., slacker food writers) I made my way through Beluga, Oscietra and Sevruga from Russia, Iran and China, nine in all, with such fine discrimination, that I had what you might call an epiphany. The tasting revealed just how varied caviar can be, depending on the breed of sturgeon, the season and the feed. If my memory is correct, Oz Clarke and I decided that the Chinese Oscietra from a fish caught in the spring was the most complex and satisfying of those on display. More specifically, we were told two stories that encompassed the exotic and mysterious world of caviar production.
Sevruga caviar with CITES seal
In those days, the world of caviar was relatively simple. There were - and there are - about 27 species of sturgeon all told in the Acipenseridae family, some found only in certain parts of the world. Although almost all have been treated at one time or another as sources of the precious eggs, three species were and remain the backbone of caviar production: huso huso for Beluga, Acipenser gueldenstaedtii for Oscietra and Acipenser stellatus for Sevruga.
The steel gray to obsidian black Beluga was generally recognized as the chief caviar as the eggs are the largest. However, some connoisseurs preferred Oscietra, which was smaller and whose color ranged from dirty ivory to green to gold. It was, they said, more subtle and complex. The Slate Gray to Charcoal Black Sevruga was smaller than both and, while not ignored, was generally thought not to be of the same interest or quality. There was also pressed caviar made of damaged eggs that looked like tar, smelled strongly of fish and was enjoyed by hard-core caviar aficionados.
At the time, and in fact, up until the 1990s, 80 to 90 percent of all caviar came from fish that swam wild in the Caspian Sea and the rivers that flowed through it. Russian caviar production was tightly controlled by its Ministry of Fisheries. The situation on the Iranian side was confused due to bitter quarrels between various Iranian rulers (actually Persia at the time) prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution. After that, it took 10 years for the Shilat Trading Company, the Iranian state-owned fishing operation. to resolve the situation and take control.
This was made possible, we are told, by one of the last acts of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1983, which approved the reclassification of sturgeon as scales, which as such could be handled by devout Muslims, so important was the exchange earned from the export of caviar to the newly formed Islamic republic. It seemed so unlikely, it had to be true, and it was. Even more bizarre was the story of China's modern caviar industry.
The Chinese had never made caviar such a thing to their Russian and Iranian neighbors, although Acipenser schrenckii and Huso dauricus were numerous in the Amur River which marks the border between China and Russia. Then, at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, China decided to create its own caviar industry for the same reason that the Iranian ayatollahs later did. This was easier planned than done. At the time, the Chinese and Russian armies were deployed on both banks of the Amur River, bombing each other intermittently, and America was not talking to Russia or China because they were black-hearted Communists. Thus, while official diplomatic relations between the three superpowers were strained, the sturgeon fishing stations on the Chinese side of the Amur River were built by the Bechtel Corporation of America, to specifications provided by Russian experts; the entire project is funded by the Californian company Sunshine Fine Foods, thus illustrating the power of financial self-interest to overcome any obstacle.
For a short time, in the 1980s, sturgeon fishing and caviar production were an orderly and relatively well-run business. However, the Caspian sturgeon was already having a hard time due to river mismanagement, overfishing, pollution and natural chance, and was in sharp decline. Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and with it the Ministry of Fisheries, guarantor of Russian caviar production. Suddenly, centralized control vanished and those states with coastal claims over parts of the Caspian Sea and its rivers - Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, as well as Russia and Iran - all began to exercise their rights to the caviar harvest. In the absence of a law enforcement agency, the production of Caspian caviar became a true free market, in which Russian criminal gangs took a lot of interest.
There is a lot of money to be made - and lost - in caviar. The demand for this, the most desirable of fish roe, like that for diamonds, always resists
Never exactly a transparent industry, it has now become a free dark for all, with only Iranian caviar production maintaining any kind of integrity or quality control. Overfishing became rampant. The pollution has taken its toll. Perhaps most damaging of all, dams had been built on the Volga, Ural and Terek rivers that flow into the Caspian, limiting the movement of the sturgeon. Catches in the Caspian Sea fell by 70% between 1978 and 1994. The Amur River sturgeon eventually succumbed to the same fate as those in the Caspian. In fact, the global situation of the sturgeon has become so bad that in 1998 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) convinced the Caspian countries and China to stop selling wild fish caviar altogether. And this, in general, is the situation today. I was told that it is possible to find caviar from poached wild fish in Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan, but if someone offers you wild caviar, it almost certainly isn't; and even if it were, you shouldn't buy it. It's farmed fish caviar all around.
Agricultural sturgeon, however, did not bring clarity to the industry. If the former situation was obscure, it now becomes disconcertingly fragmented. In addition to Russia, Iran and China, sturgeon farming is practiced in France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Israel, Moldova, Poland, Spain, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Uruguay. There are also two caviar producers in the UK: Exmoor Caviar in the West Country and KC Caviar in Yorkshire. New countries join the caviar club almost within the month. China is the world's largest producer and Hangzhou Qiandaohu Xunlong Sci-Tech Company Limited, the largest agricultural company, is responsible for 30% of the world's total. In the confused realm of international caviar, Hangzhou's largest shareholder (24%) is Bill Holst, a scrap metal trader from Wisconsin, USA.
Unsurprisingly, the industry has exploded in recent years. While wild fish caviar may be almost non-existent, the growth in demand has been exponential. The system for the production of caviar is of a disarming simplicity. Modern distribution systems are fast and smooth. Computerization offers instant traceability. What could go wrong? Well, quite a lot, judging by the number of sturgeon farms that have failed.
First of all, you need fish, a good body of clean water, and time, a lot of time. Anyone hoping to make quick profits from sturgeon farming will be disappointed. Sturgeon of any species takes a long time to reach sexual maturity when it begins to produce eggs. Different species mature at different times. For example, females from the largest sturgeon family, the Belugas, take 16 to 18 years to reach that point. This is one of the reasons why Beluga caviar is so expensive. Incidentally, the largest sturgeon ever recorded was a female Beluga captured in the Volga in 1827; it weighed 1,571 kg, was 7.2 m long and is estimated to be well over 100 years old.
Other sturgeons - Acipenser gueldenstaedtii and Acipenser stellatus - don't take long to mature, but it will still take at least 8-10 years before the eggs can be harvested. Of course, this isn't fast enough for the industry, so various species have been crossed to produce faster-maturing fish. These hybrid fish have added their own caviar to the Beluga, Oscietra and Sevruga, or Imperial line (eggs of Huso dauricus raised with Acipenser schrenckii); and platinum (gueldenstaedtii bred with Acipenser baerrii - the native Siberian).
Whatever the species, it takes an inconceivably long time before it starts to become
a return on investment and the sturgeon takes great care of him. They are prone to various bacterial and fungal infections, particularly in high density sock systems. They need to be fed. In nature, sturgeons are bottom feeding omnivores. On farms they are fed with high protein pellets. As with all fish farms, there is a great deal of waste that needs to be addressed.
And when you start to think your troubles are over, here are the delicate and highly perishable eggs. Managing and evaluating them requires skill and judgment. Mixing them with salt, ditto. Packing them, ditto. And all this before you start selling your caviar in a ruthless and competitive market. No wonder so many caviar growers have gone bankrupt. On the other hand, the failure of one farmer is the opportunity of another would-be sturgeon breeder. It takes so much effort to start a farm that, as Sergei Reviakin of Mottra Caviar, who trades in London but raises sturgeons and produces caviar in Riga, Latvia, says, “If you really want to get started in this business, the cheapest way is buy a bankrupt producer ”.
This brings us to another thorny issue: the welfare of fish. Traditionally, female sturgeons are killed to extract the precious eggs as quickly as possible. The remaining meat is sold to be eaten fresh or smoked. To some, this seems like a waste and in recent years various methods have been developed with the aim of saving fish, so that it can produce several seasons of ovulation. In theory, this seems like an admirable move as well as a practical one, and has generally been hailed as "ethical", "sustainable", "compassionate" and other terms that resonate in contemporary food marketing.
Several companies around the world have developed processes along the same line. Mottra, the Russian / Latvian firm, is acclaimed by chefs Mark Hix, Mitch Tonks and Francesco Mazzei, as well as by Ewan Venters, CEO of Fortnum & Mason, and by the German Vivace GmbH (now sadly bankrupt). A Swiss company, Zwyer Caviar, raises its sturgeon "in the heart of Uruguay"; while KC Caviar has 500 fish in South Milford, Yorkshire. All very admirable. It goes without saying that things are not that simple.
The technique of "stripping" fish of their eggs has existed for centuries, although modern technology has made it less erratic. Using ultrasound, breeders can track the development of fish eggs. As time approaches, fish are injected with a natural hormone to induce ovulation and facilitate the stripping process.
However, according to many connoisseurs, the caviar produced with the "ethical" system, not only does not have the same intensity as the caviar produced with the traditional method, but also the eggs do not have the same consistency, because they are not completely ripe. There are even dark murmurs of "spherification," the technique of using sodium alginate and calcium chloride or calcium lactate gluconate (among others) to form mushy, fishy spheres just like real eggs, in order to actually create "caviar. ".
Once the eggs have been taken from the fish by any method, speed is of the essence. Eggs are handled with delicacy their delicacy and price demands. Waste is too expensive to allow. They are separated from the bag that contains them and carefully pressed through a special sieve. The eggs are washed several times to remove impurities and then dry buffered before being mixed with salt, or salt and borax, to flavor and act as a preservative. Caviar can now be stored until needed, when packaged in specially lined boxes. Most caviar in the UK is sold between three and six months from the time of extraction. Some countries, such as France and America, prefer a stronger flavor caviar, which is stored for up to 12 months before packaging and sale.
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It still remains a confused, confused and opaque affair. Information, misinformation, smoke and mirrors, mysticism and mythology overlap with everything that has to do with caviar. Nor does there seem to be much love lost among caviar producers, who seem all too ready to denigrate and worse off their competitors. Perhaps not surprisingly. There is a lot of money to be made - and lost - in caviar. The demand for this, the most desirable of fish roe, like that for diamonds, always resists.
Of course, the chefs play their part in this. Caviar has always had a place in classic French fish sauces. Great chefs have found a way to represent caviar so to speak, often pairing it with unorthodox ingredients. Jacques Pic's “Filet de loup au caviar” seems almost traditional compared to the legendary “Gelée de caviar à la créme de chou-fleur” by Joël Robuchon or the “Tagliatelle di oyster al caviar” by Marco Pierre White. Heston Blumenthal upped the ante by combining caviar with (oddly successful) white chocolate.
More recently, Jason Atherton created a dish with the humble title of "Fish and Chips". A substantial strain of potato is braised in the turbot broth until it absorbs all the liquid and becomes crunchy on the outside. This is topped with a generous bright black Sevruga straw. However, farmed caviar has led to some ubiquity. In the latest installment of The Great British Menu, the BBC TV series I am a judge of, dish after dish was smeared in the stuff (and shaved truffle haystacks too).
But will caviar ever lose its charm, prestige or price? Probably not. Too much time, trouble, money and romance are invested. Caviar remains a benchmark of luxury and luxury is ineffably sexy. As Ludwig Bemelmans, that great chronicler of luxury dinners at the beginning of the last century, said: "Caviar is for lunch what a sable coat is for a girl in an evening dress."