Once the preserve of Russian tsars and British royalty, caviar was described by the great Renaissance writer François Rabelais as the finest titbit in the world. But recently it has been disappearing from dinner menus, amid concerns that traditional methods of harvesting the roe involve killing the majestic sturgeon that produce it.
Now, however, ethical caviar, produced without harm to the fish, has made the luxury permissible once more. Mottra Caviar, based near Riga in Latvia, has 50,000 sturgeon on its farm. Its director, Sergei Reviakin, said he has seen a 40 per cent increase in sales this year.
"After sturgeon became endangered, many chefs stopped using caviar," he said. "We are now teaching people about it."
He said the UK is one of his firm's biggest markets, along with Sweden, France, Poland, the Netherlands and Germany.
Unlike traditional caviar production, which kills the fish, the sturgeon are "milked" by human massage along their body to produce eggs. The fish are moved from warm to cold water for the three months before being milked, so the sturgeon feel by instinct that it is time to hatch, as the move to colder water mimics nature. In the 1980s, more than 1,000 tons of caviar were processed worldwide each year. Now, that figure is estimated to be about 120 tons for farmed caviar, Mr Reviakin said.
Selfridges has seen a double-digit growth increase in sales this year, while Ocado has extended deliveries from Christmas to include Valentine's Day to cope with increased demand. La Fromagerie on Marylebone High Street in central London and Harvey Nichols now offer the delicacy. L'Anima restaurant offers Mottra caviar with roe fish butter, while chef Mark Hix serves it with hot buttered toast and duck eggs. The Wright Brothers introduced ethical caviar at the Raw Bar in London early this month, and Gidleigh Park in Dorset has featured it on its menu.
Hix, who also serves the delicacy at his champagne and caviar bar in Selfridges, said: "The luxurious pastime of eating caviar has almost disappeared, partly because of the threat of extinction to the sturgeon but also because in hard times it's not exactly the most cost-effective thing to eat. We use Mottra, the only truly sustainable caviar in the world – it being sustainable means we can eat as much as our wallets can afford, without a guilty conscience."
A spokesman for Ocado said shoppers' caviar appetite is increasing. "We have ordered more this Christmas than ever before. Shoppers are more aware than ever about the provenance and sustainability of what they're eating."
Delicacy ethics: Guilty, and not-so-guilty, pleasures
An ethical version avoids the process known as la gavage, whereby geese are force-fed with a metal tube. The Spanish company Pateria de Sousa produces the ethical version called Ganso Iberico.
Ethical leaps have been made in the UK, with better diet, space and bedding for calves replacing the tiny veal crates.
The fin is used to provide texture, rather than taste. But as producers have failed to find an ethical compromise, it is falling off menus.
The Marine Conservation Society recommends we avoid eating bluefin tuna and choose line-caught yellowfin, skipjack or albacore tuna.
Chickens, pigs, cattle
The RSPCA's Freedom Food scheme has grown rapidly in recent years, but still has only 4 per cent of the market.