Science saves a delicacy: The great caviar revolution

The sturgeon is endangered and the export of wild caviar is banned. There is, though, an alternative to black market fare. Peter Popham investigates the rise and rise of the farmed variety
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A rich, loamy smell fills the air along the narrow road that leads to Agroittica, a fish farm outside Brescia. A huge steel plant pumps water to the 60 hectare farm where half a million white sturgeon swim in well-filtered, gravel-bottomed tanks.

When it was built, in the 1970s, Agroittica was intended as an eel-breeding plant. But now it is something very different. No one planned it this way, and no one would have predicted it but, bucking all the trends and defying all the critics, it has become the world's largest caviar farm. And business has never been so good.

This year, for the first time, the export of wild caviar from practically all the countries in which it is produced has been completely banned by Cites, the UN organisation whose remit is to regulate the trade in endangered species. No export licences at all were granted for Russia and Kazakhstan, the principal sources, and only limited quantities of Iranian osetra caviar were exempted.

For caviar experts, the ban was long overdue. Sturgeon, the source of caviar, was first put on Cites' list of endangered species in 1998. It was one of the victims of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire. The enormous, antediluvian, whiskery fish which can grow up to 900 kg (in the case of beluga) and live to be 100, flourished during the decades of Soviet power, protected by a state monopoly that was rigidly enforced. But once the Soviet Union collapsed, the mafias descended on the Black and Caspian Seas and plundered them at will. The result was several years of glut and low prices, followed quickly by the alarm of marine biologists at how the sturgeon stocks were being decimated. And then, eventually, official international action.

Today, as a result of the crisis, the poor relation of wild caviar, the farmed stuff, is sticking its hand up and asking to be taken seriously. For the caviar connoisseur, the choices are limited. For the truly desperate, there are places which will satisfy their now illicit cravings. Turn up on a grey Brussels morning to the Marché Matinale, for instance, and in among the legitimate butchers and fishmongers can be found clandestine traders selling smuggled, wild caviar from the boots of their cars for the bargain price of €50 to €80 per 100g can.

It is as illegal as selling crack cocaine or heroin (though the chances of being arrested and tried are low). And buying would be a personal contribution to the, probably terminal, damage being done to the ocean's remaining stocks of wild sturgeon.

Gastronomes torn between forking out a king's ransom for illegal osetra or giving up the glistening grey eggs altogether are, with much diffidence and unease, trying the caviar that comes from a factory.

It took a little time, but the experts are beginning to discover that the best of the farmed stuff is actually alright. It's real caviar. It's fresh not pasteurised, it's neither too oily nor bitter nor bland. It has the pop of caviar and the glistening grey colour and the buttery, nutty flavour.

It's not beluga, because even the cleverest fish farmers have yet to succeed in rearing beluga to maturity in captivity (they eat each other). The other 26 sturgeon varieties are also stubborn, conservative, slow to adapt and fussy. But through much expense and trial and error, by not overcrowding them or force-feeding them or requiring them to accelerate their life-cycle, and by processing the resulting caviar in conditions comparable to a hospital operating theatre, the most dedicated and patient breeders, Agroittica among them, are getting results.

It all started for the Italian farm as the result of a chance encounter in Venice between the then chairman of the firm, Dr Gino Ravagnan, and a Russian refugee settled in the US by the name of Serge Doroshov. When the two men, one a marine biologist at Davis University in California dedicated to reproducing white sturgeon caught in the wild, the other an Italian businessman, met, Mr Doroshov suggested that Agroittica start doing what he was doing at a fish farm he advised in California (today called Sterling). The fish and the technicians came over from California and they went to work.

"Breeding white sturgeon in captivity is difficult," says Sandro Cancellieri. "It is difficult to accustom them to artificial feed: you have to wean them slowly off plankton, the food they eat in the Pacific, you have to cheat them by slowly lowering the proportion of plankton in the feed. Even so, you lose a lot: 50 per cent of the original stock died of starvation. It took us 14 years, until 1995, before we succeeded in breeding here." For most of those years, caviar was the furthest thing from the minds of the people at Agroittica: the object of the operation was to sell the sturgeon meat, which is still produced both fresh and smoked. "Nobody was thinking about farmed caviar until the mid 1990s," says Cancellieri. "In 1992, we'd have been crazy to launch farmed caviar with the mafias ransacking the Caspian Sea for sturgeon and the price of caviar [which was traded in Deutschmarks], down to 300DM [£105] per kilogram, less than one-quarter of the price today." The production of a tiny quantity of pasteurised caviar began in 1992, sold as a sort of novelty gift item.

But slowly the picture changed. Cancellieri, an economist by training who has spent most of his career in fish farms, arrived in 1997. He had come from a farm where fish were reared in intensive conditions in cement tanks. At Agroittica by contrast the tanks had natural gravel bottoms with well water filtered naturally through the gravel and with far fewer fish per square metre. Cancellieri's instinct, he admits, was to urge the company to put €10m into transforming the place into an intensive farm with a much smaller workforce. Instead, they carried on with similar fish and human densities as before - which as it turned out resulted in better caviar. "The fish swim freely," he says, "the gravel keeps the water clean and because it's well water it's free from the accidental pollution of surface water." Agroittica is now the biggest caviar farm in the world.

The family histories of Agroittica's sturgeon are meticulously recorded. Each fish's parents and grandparents, as well as details such as where and when it was born, are kept on a microchip implanted in the back of its head, updated every time the fish is moved.

"We have half a million fish," says Cancellieri, "and this way we know we are keeping them in the best possible condition." The harvesting of the caviar, a hit-and-miss affair in the wild, is likewise determined scientifically: the female fish, normally at least 12 years old, is taken to the lab, a tiny incision made in her belly and a few eggs extracted.

"These are examined in the lab, and by this means we can judge if the caviar will be ready in November, in January, in March or next year. As the roe matures, fat from the belly enters it. Harvest too young and the fat has not yet arrived. Harvest too late and the eggs are soft which means they can be broken and must be pasteurised, with the loss of up to 50 per cent of the taste.

"Producing good caviar," Cancellieri goes on, "is all about intervening at the right moment. It must not smell of fish: if it does it means there is a high bacterial content and can even be a risk to the health. It must not taste bitter, which comes from contamination during storage or transportation." In the quest for perfection, Cancellieri and his team have developed a new and, they claim, perfect container for caviar: a vacuum-sealed polystyrene box. It has none of the poetry of the traditional double tin, an archaic attempt at vacuum-packing still beloved of caviar romantics. But it does a better job.

Agroittica and its brand, Calvisius - named for a local nobleman who, according to legend, reared sturgeon on his farm in ancient times - have racked up numerous successes in their ascent to caviar fame. The first class cabins of the world's top airlines used to account for more than half of the caviar consumed worldwide; since 11 September 2001, that proportion has dropped to 40 per cent, and Agroittica has a good slice of the market, including Lufthansa, Singapore and Thai airlines. The hospital-like production conditions persuaded Lufthansa to place a permanent order for fresh, not pasteurised caviar - a sign of real confidence, as no airline wants to put the tummies of its top customers at risk. Calvisus caviar has also outdone wild caviar in blind test conditions. In a test conducted last December by the Danish financial daily Bersen, two cooks and a food journalist picked Calvisus top out of nine caviars. Wild Kazakhstan beluga and osetra ranked second and fourth.

The grudging but growing acceptance of farmed caviar by the sort of grandees who five years ago would have sniffed at it is one sign among many of the growing maturity of fish farming as an industry: as the oceans grow dirtier and emptier, it's the only place to turn. Often one does so with a groan, because the taste - of farmed salmon for example - bears no resemblance to "the real thing." Sandro Cancellieri's handiwork suggests that this is not inevitable, and that with sufficient care and attention and technology, the products of the farm can taste as good as those of the sea. At a price: Calvisus caviar costs between €150 and €180 per 100 grams. That's roughly half the price of Iranian osetra. But it's still a lot of money.

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