Caviar has been one of the world’s most prized and sought-after delicacies for thousands of years. According to records by Greek philosopher Aristotle, caviar and the fish it comes from, sturgeon, graced Greek banquets from as early as the fourth century BC. But it was the even more ancient Persians who created salted caviar, and venerated it for its healing properties.
Today, backed by this long history of tradition, caviar remains prestigious, mysterious, even intimidating. It can also be eye-wateringly expensive: Almas, from the rare albino beluga of the Iranian Caspian Sea, sells for US$34,500 (S$46,700) per kilogram.
But, while Almas remains the holy grail of caviar, other varieties are becoming much more accessible. While all sturgeon were once wild-caught, mainly from the Caspian and Black seas, making their eggs so rare they were the preserve of tsars and kings, today sturgeons are farmed in more than 50 countries.
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Driven by demand, and the fact that most sturgeon species have been fished to near extinction in the wild, producers around the world are charting new territory and experimenting with raising these primitive fish and harvesting their eggs.
Chefs make caviar cool
Tapping these new sources of caviar, some chefs across the globe are refashioning what this symbol of the fine life stands for. While maintaining its opulent appeal, they are on a mission to make caviar less snooty and staid, more contemporary and cool.
Australian Brett Redman, who helms one of London’s hottest new restaurant openings, Neptune, is one of the chefs repositioning caviar.
“We love the luxurious, special-occasion vibe it gives off, and it just tastes so damn good,” says Redman, who sources the roe from Exmoor Caviar, Britain’s first caviar producer set up in 2010. “But we serve ours in a slightly offbeat way, with hash browns, cultured cream and cured egg yolk.”
Redman says the dish is one of the restaurant’s most popular. “Our diners love it. We price it competitively and offer a small serving so everyone can afford to try it,” he says. Across the water, caviar is served in equally approachable renditions. American restaurateur David Chang serves 113g tins of caviar from New Brunswick, Canada, with fried chicken at his Asian-American restaurant, Momofuku, while legendary New York City cocktail bar PDT serves crispy fried tater tots (deep-fried, grated potatoes) topped with 50g of paddlefish (a US relative of the sturgeon) caviar.
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In Asia, too, chefs are sourcing caviar from regions not traditionally associated with this storied delicacy. At Cure in Singapore, chef-owner Andrew Walsh buys caviar from a country that now accounts for 60 per cent of the world’s production: China. He sources the roe from Kaluga Queen – the world’s biggest caviar company – which farms sturgeon in Zhejiang, 500km south-west of Shanghai.
Kaluga Queen produces about 60 tonnes of caviar a year. The fish are raised in Qiandao Lake, a man-made lake fed by fresh, cold water from the nearby Huangshan Mountains. Each sturgeon has an identification number and is given regular physicals, and every tin of caviar features a code that customers can use to trace the fish’s spawning history and its eggs’ production details.
Walsh joins a distinguished list of chefs, including Alain Ducasse at the Hotel Plaza Athenee in Paris and Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin in New York, in serving Kaluga Queen. He uses the caviar to top his Slow Cooked Egg.
“It is a truly high quality product, not as salty as some caviar, and it has a creamier taste. It also offers a satisfying pop in the mouth due to its great texture,” he says.
China may be the biggest producer of caviar, but the roe is also being harvested on a much smaller scale in countries including Vietnam, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
But, while these small producers cater only to domestic demand, one country’s caviar has unexpectedly reached high enough quality to be exported: Japan.
Miyazaki Caviar, the primary producer of Japanese caviar, was launched in Hong Kong, its first market outside of Japan, in 2017. Its launch product, Miyazaki Caviar 1983, which premiered domestically in 2013, not only put Japanese caviar onto the world stage, but also defied caviar tradition in that the roe is not salt-cured, but flash-frozen using the same technique as that for tuna.
The caviar, subtle and delicate with a very low salinity at only 3 per cent, is served at Michelin-star restaurants in Tokyo and is on the menu at Four Seasons Hong Kong.
The journey to success and global recognition for the Japanese caviar was a long one. It takes at least eight years for a female sturgeon to reach 1.5m-long maturity, so caviar production has always been a time-intensive process. However, it would be three decades before Miyazaki Caviar released its first product.
The company took the first sturgeon, a Siberian variety, to Japan in 1983, but it did not thrive in local waters. After much experimenting with species and breeding methods, the company settled on Kyushu island’s Miyazaki prefecture as the breeding location. It was the North American white sturgeon that finally took to the region’s mild mountain spring waters.
From this experimental beginning, Miyazaki Prefecture now plans to expand its caviar industry to 10 billion yen (S$121 million) annually.
Experiments with ethical farming
Pioneers are experimenting with caviar production around the world, with some adopting innovative methods in the harvesting of sturgeon eggs. Traditionally, when harvesting roe, the female sturgeon is killed, then her eggs are removed.
To avoid killing the fish, the “caesarean-section” technique was developed. This involves making a small incision in the fish to access her eggs. No chemicals are required to induce egg-laying, but the operation increases risk of fatal infection and can damage the fish’s ovaries, reducing future roe yields.
To be even more humane, the world’s first ethical sturgeon farm opened two years ago in England. At family-run KC Caviar, the sturgeon is allowed to follow her own seasonal egg production cycle through managing the temperature and light of the water. Ultrasound scans track her progress, and when the time its right, she is injected with a protein to induce ovulation. When the eggs are ready, they are pumped from her belly with gentle massaging.
While some have praised the caviar extracted this way, critics say the roe is not quite up to standard.
“No-kill is a great idea, and I’m sure in the future this will be great, but the massaging technique I find crushes the eggs,” says Oliver Denley, food buyer at London’s Rosewood Hotel. “When you compare it to the Bulgarian oscietra that we buy… it doesn’t come close.”
Ethically farmed caviar may have some way to go before being able to compete with the world’s finest varieties, but the experiment has only just begun. In the meantime, diners today can be satisfied in the knowledge that they are sampling a delicacy that was once so precious, it was the preserve of Russian oligarchs and Persian kings.