I’m in the lake district of central Finland, peering curiously into the water that is home to assorted Siberian sturgeons. Its inhabitants are of different ages and size, from tiny fingerlings to mature 7kg beasts. I’m surprised to see them sympathetically greet me by popping their heads and dorsal fins up in the air – in the hope of reward, no doubt. For the water I’m looking into isn’t that of a lake but of dozens of pools, at a farm. And yet it is not the fish themselves that are the ultimate focus of the farming, but the precious treasure they carry.
In one of the pools the splashing seems considerably stronger. Belugas, I learn. The sheer size of the rare sturgeon breed is startling. These 2m-long monsters are teenagers still (the beluga can live for 100 years and more); they weigh up to 110kg and will grow further. (The largest ever recorded female approached whale-size, measuring 7.2m and weighing 1,571kg.) They appear almost prehistoric, which is understandable, given that many of their characteristics have remained unchanged since the earliest fossil record, 200 million years ago.
Gone, though, are the days of inexhaustible beluga from the Caspian Sea. Overfishing and habitat deterioration were responsible for the caviar crisis of the 1990s, which led to the temporary suspension of wild caviar production in Russia and strict limitations thereafter. But from the dramatic near-extinction of wild caviar arose the opportunity for a more sustainably farmed variety. Since the start of the century, sturgeon farming has offered sustainable alternatives to the mighty caviar traders of Russia and Iran. Today, the biggest players after China – which is responsible for more than a quarter of global output – are Russia, Italy and France. Production now spans all seven continents and some 50 countries, from Iran to Canada, Spain to Uruguay, and Madagascar to, yes, Finland.
On the one hand, such diversity is understandable, since sturgeon can, in theory, be farmed anywhere. But like racehorses grazing on Kentucky blue grass to develop strength in their bones, or pigs feeding on belota acorns to produce the finest Iberico ham, beluga need optimum aquatic conditions.
‘Water is the most important ingredient in caviar-making,’ says Niclas Karlsson, CEO of Carelian Caviar, the first Nordic producer of the coveted black gold. ‘It’s like speaking of terroir in wine.’ With unlimited access to clean, crisp Nordic water, Karlsson says, he is able to produce a superior caviar. ‘It comes down to purity of flavour,’ he tells me as we stroll around the 60 pools, each with its own recirculating aquaculture system to minimise water usage. (Only the 1% lost to evaporation needs to be replaced.)
Farming has brought about a whole new level of sustainability to caviar production. Modern methods are making the delicacy at least as fine and far more consistent than most wild renderings. ‘Our farm is situated on land and under cover, which provides many benefits,’ Karlsson says. ‘We can abstain from using any antibiotics, pharmaceuticals or hormones. And by controlling temperature and lighting, we can harvest on a weekly basis for nine months of the year instead of the usual twice per year.’ The result is a fresher product, cured only with salt.
Pasteurising or treating the roe with additives such as borax ensures extra shelf life, but compromises in taste are inevitable, says Karlsson. ‘Only our Classic caviar is cured by the ancient Russian recipe [with borax], which results in caviar of stronger and more matured flavour,’ he says. And consumer tastes are changing, with the fine dining scene worldwide more mindful of local production and favouring a more modern, fresh and delicate style of caviar.
Carelian supplies René Redzepi’s legendary Noma in Copenhagen. The English favour their own, too, with the likes of The Fat Duck in Berkshire and The Ledbury in west London choosing Exmoor Caviar from north Devon (which sources even its salt locally, drying and refining whole Cornish Sea Salt crystals in-house for flavouring).
Beluga needs almost 20 years to mature, which makes it somewhat impractical from an economic perspective. As a result, the Siberian sturgeon, which requires a mere five to eight years to start producing eggs, is the sturgeon of choice at Carelian, as well as at 40% of caviar farms worldwide. Out of the water, how the all-important eggs are procured is a sensitive subject to say the least. Layers of fat protect them as they mature, and shortly before the female lays the roe, the fat is absorbed by the eggs. ‘That is exactly when the roe is at its best,’ says production manager Jani Rantula, who is tasked with capturing the moment with the use of ultrasound. How, though, to capture the eggs?
At Carelian, the sturgeons are culled by single blows to the head. While this may sound brutal, both Carelian and Exmoor Caviar find it to be the most ethical way (it may result in the best taste, too, since the fish do not experience the stress of manipulated ovulation and several extractions over the course of their lifetime). Of course, you are left with mountains of sturgeon meat – not a fish traditionally eaten in most countries. But in the name of sustainability, the fish is today increasingly used in its entirety.
The only parts of the fish that are not used are the head and tail – and believe me, we have tried
Exmoor Caviar’s solution is particularly creative. The meat is either sold fresh at local markets or to restaurants, or it is sent to a smokehouse partner to be hot- or cold-smoked and then sold on, while the roe sack is processed and refined into the world’s first 100% pure caviar oil. ‘The only parts of the fish that are not used are the head and tail – and believe me, we have tried,’ operations director Harry Ferguson reassures me. Nonetheless, opinions of the most ethical way of producing caviar vary, with many sustainable facilities such as Latvian Mottra using milking to produce their ‘no-kill caviar.’
Whatever the technique, largeness and firmness of roe are the qualities most desired. And at Carelian, the caviar is not blended, so the tins are all single-fish caviar. In fact, the production time is kept to a minimum, with the caviar ending up neatly packed within 40 minutes, before putting it to rest for a month to absorb the salt before repacking into vacuum-sealed sales tins.
Thanks to farming, global caviar production has risen from 100 tonnes in the record-low years of the early 2000s, to 364 tonnes in 2017 (though this still amounts to only a tenth of what was obtained from the fisheries during the heyday of the 1980s). But with wild stocks being replenished, the black market shrinking and production becoming increasingly sustainable, the foundations are there for consumers to be seduced by the divine taste sensations, health benefits and aphrodisiac qualities of this precious roe that has maintained its magic for centuries.
The best of the new wave of sustainable producers…
Caviar eaten on its own or on a light blini is an ever-in-demand delicacy, but it is increasingly used as an indulgent ingredient for crowning any dish. Oysters, lobster, eggs, pasta – the opportunities are endless. With caviar’s retail price averaging more than £1,000 ($1,240) per kilogram, it is a luxury. But one does not always have to go for the extravagantly priced Almas Albino Caviar to enjoy the dish. Today, sensibly priced options exist, and sustainably produced caviar can be ordered directly from the producer to ensure perfect freshness.
This highly sustainable producer was established in 2002 as a Latvian and Russian joint venture and offers great value for money. Malossol refers to a fresh style of caviar cured with just a light dose of salt, in this case 3%. This dark-coloured no-kill caviar from Siberian sturgeons is delicate, with elegantly melting eggs and a long, clean finish.
RRP £38 ($47), 56g
This roe of the white sturgeon comes from the cradle of Italian caviar production, Brescia in Lombardy. The large sturgeon needs 15 years to start producing, and the eggs are particularly big – more than 3mm in diameter – with a pretty, dark grey hue. Expect clean, buttery flavours and a solid texture that slowly melts in the mouth.
RRP £118 ($145), 50g
This is the top product from the only Nordic caviar producer. Siberian sturgeon caviar cured with salt only, it comes with a delicate 3.5% salt content. Brownish grey colour and 2.6mm in size, these eggs boast pure, elegant aromatics; mild oceanic tones are complemented by a rich, nutty complexity and a beautifully fresh taste, with firm yet succulent texture.
RRP £162 ($200), 50g
The UK’s first caviar farm was founded in 2010. Pure Cornish Sea Salt is used to cure and flavour the roe of Siberian sturgeons, which is black and medium-sized. Deep and soft nose, with gentle sea and salt undertone; this has a rich flavour with plenty of character and a soft texture with a sumptuous oiliness.
RRP £100 ($125), 50g
In 1920, Emile Prunier started to race fresh caviar to Parisian restaurants within 24 hours of production. Today, a three-month shelf life can be expected for the 50g tins of its iconic Paris caviar, which comes from Siberian sturgeons. Look for a lightly salted style with brown, medium-sized grain and an elegant, subtle character that has fine, creamy length.
RRP £248 (£305), 50g
…and the best places to eat the stuff
The second most important factor in making the best caviar (after its provenance) is freshness. The shelf life for the lightly salted styles is a mere three to four months, and even the more heavily preserved styles should be consumed within a year – the quicker the better, so one needs to keep the stocks rotating, even in the home refrigerator. Better still, eat it fresh at one of these fine purveyors.
15/1 Mokhovaya Street, Bld 1, 125009 Moscow, Russia
To maximise your traditional Russian caviar experience, head to this lavish caviar brasserie at the extravagant Hotel National Moscow, a stone’s throw away from Red Square. There you’ll find a choice of some 20 different caviars and several caviar-inspired dishes.
Caviar House & Prunier
Frankfurt Airport Terminal 2, Frankfurt, Germany
Prunier opened its London Piccadilly restaurant back in 1932, and since joining forces with Caviar House in 2004, its outlets are many. Caviar House & Prunier shops and caviar bars have a strong presence at airports, where it feels like a luxury to spend some extra time indulging. I find the Frankfurt Airport Terminal 2 outlet to be particularly passionately run.
17 Berkeley Street, Mayfair, London W1J 8EA, United Kingdom
London’s classic hotels, private members’ clubs and up-market department stores tend to offer great caviar service. But for something different, treat yourself to the innovative Chinese dishes at Park Chinois in the heart of Mayfair. Here you can make the most of the extensive caviar offering for the signature Peking duck and sumptuous caviar dish, duck de chine.
Matbaren by Mathias Dahlgren
Södra Blasieholmshamnen 6, Stockholm, Sweden
Caviar is dear to Sweden’s iconic chef Mathias Dahlgren, who uses it creatively in his dishes. This modern bistro in the famous Grand Hôtel is renowned for its rich brioche served with 30 grams of caviar, which is tough to beat.
The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street, Yountville, California 94599, United States
Gourmet travellers still flock to Thomas Keller’s Napa outpost, as should any caviar lover. Keller’s caviar dishes are epic, and he loves the black pearls so much that he recently ventured into the business himself, teaming up with Shaoching Bishop, former CEO of Sterling Caviar, to found Regiis Ova Caviar.