Caviar: the ultimate delicacy, from a farm near you?

The grey pearls burst on the tongue to release their salty, marine aroma, lifted by notes of nut or fruit. Caviar remains the ultimate luxury food - except these days the Caspian delicacy likely comes from a farm near you.

Exports of wild sturgeon eggs - culled to make caviar - have been severely restricted since 1998 under UN quotas set to protect the species from chaotic overfishing after the fall of the Soviet Union.

For the past two years, there have been next-to-no wild sturgeon's eggs available on world markets, save for black gold trafficked out illegally from the five countries that share the Caspian Sea shores.

Deprived of wild raw material, caviar houses turned towards an alternative source, like France's Armen Petrossian, whose Armenian father introduced the delicacy to Paris in the 1920s and who started using farmed eggs in 1998.

Today Petrossian - a veritable caviar "tsar" whose specialist boutiques account for 15 percent of the world market - works exclusively with farms, as do his global competitors.

Farmed caviar - whose pearls range in colour from honey to dark grey - can offer the "best or the worst", Petrossian told AFP at his flagship Paris store, wearing trademark waxed moustache and bow tie.

"There is nothing generic about caviar - it's a complex product," he said. "We select and refine the eggs, we let them mature. It's a job as important as a winegrower who transforms his grape."

Petrossian sources from a network of producers in southwestern France, but also in the United States, China and Bulgaria, working with them to improve the quality of the raw material.

"When we visit farms we can intervene on the number of fish, their food, the position of the pools, the moment at which they cull the eggs," he said.

Twelve years on, he claims the farmed result can match the original.

"It is extremely difficult - not to say impossible - to tell the difference between a very good farmed caviar and a wild one. At the top of the range, even a specialist would have a hard time telling which is which."

Petrossian laments the fact not all caviar houses are transparent about the fact they are selling farmed eggs, however.

"The customer has to know what species he is buying."

- 'We thought the fish was going to disappear' -

Global production of farmed caviar has soared from 500 kilogrammes (1,100 pounds) in 1998 to 150 tonnes today - even as legal sales of wild caviar dwindled from 300 tonnes to close to zero.

Prices have also fallen, as expanding farms yield economies of scale, but even farmed, the delicacy remains out of range for all but the best-lined of pockets.

At Petrossian, for example, 30 grammes (one ounce) of the most affordable caviar - Baeri Royal - will set you back 60 euros (80 dollars), while the same amount of Beluga Royal, the Rolls-Royce of caviars, sells for 228 euros.

Angling to seduce a younger clientele, Petrossian recently launched slightly lower priced formats like pressed caviar, caviar aperitif cubes or tiny caviar-on-the-go boxes.

"But it will never be a cheap product," he admitted.

Wild sturgeon was taken under the protection of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) after a period of dangerous overfishing in the mid-1990s.

"Coming out of a time when you could get 30 years in the Gulag for fishing a sturgeon, when the Russian state controlled production, two things happened: economic interest and the attraction of a forbidden fruit," said Petrossian.

The caviar boom - also fuelled by the Islamic Revolution in Iran - led prices to collapse as the market was flooded with product selling for as little as 100 euros per kilogramme, against a minimum of 1,400 euros today.

"During the worst years, in 1993 to 1995, we thought the fish was going to disappear completely."

But a decade on, Petrossian believes the CITES effort has backfired.

Since 2002 the convention has required the five Caspian Sea producer states - Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan - to agree a small, sustainable quota for exports of stocks of the fish eggs each year.

They have repeatedly failed to do, against a backdrop of regional wrangling and rivalries - and last year trade in Beluga caviar was halted altogether as they fell short of a deal.

This year the five agreed on a tiny quota - a total of three tonnes - but even that was rejected as unsustainable by the European Union.

Meanwhile, sturgeon numbers in the Caspian are shrinking inexorably, lost to the black market.

"We should have got local fishermen to manage the stocks - since they would have had an economic interest in being good stewards," argued Petrossian, who set up a non-governmental group, the International Caviar Importers Association (ICIA), to lobby for a different approach to the trade.

Instead, by banning exports, he argues, the international community deprived local communities of any incentive to protect the fish.

"It is a failure of CITES. We haven't managed to stabilise world production and we did everything to destroy the market," he said.

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