Exclusive ritual seeks to preserve a very expensive good name: The season's first caviare tasting - at pounds 5 for a spoonful. Alex Renton reports

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LAST Sunday the eggs were in a sturgeon swimming up the Volga to spawn. It met a net, was clubbed, cut open and stripped of roe. That was filtered through a horse-hair sieve, washed, salted, tinned and flown on Thursday night to London - increasing in value five-fold on the way.

Yesterday morning in a London hotel, about pounds 5-worth of sticky grey eggs was deposited by mother-of-pearl spoon on to the back of Laura Morris's hand. From which the Independent ate them. The caviare nouveau, (Ms Morris's phrase), was arrive.

She is the sales manager of the caviare importer WG White, which gave the world's most expensive fish dish the Beaujolais treatment. The company long enjoyed being sole British agent for Soviet caviare, but with the collapse of the union and state controls the monopoly and caviare's good name is threatened by what the company calls 'dubious sources'.

Oil companies accept caviare in contradeals with the four different post-Soviet states that produce it, and citizens of the Eastern bloc have found that it can be useful currency in the West.

In shops and street markets across western Europe you can find 100g pots of caviare selling for pounds 5. From WG White 100g of best Beluga would cost pounds 83.50. A kilogramme of caviare sells for about pounds 150 in Astrakhan.

So, keen to show off official fresh caviare (no more than three months old and kept at minus two to four degrees centigrade), the company laid out pounds 5,000-worth of the season's first eggs under an ice sculpture of a grinning sturgeon.

'Delicious, really good,' said Willi Elsner, head chef at the Dorchester, though he caused some consternation by declaring the Oscietra variety 'cheesy'. Mrs Morris rhapsodised: 'Very soft, very sexy, creamy, walnutty, melts in the mouth, no aftertaste, pure delight.' She's a professional.

(During the First World War a lieutenant was reputed to have been sent a tub of caviare by his grandmother as a Christmas treat. Being a decent chap, he distributed it among his men. Later he asked his sergeant how the lads had enjoyed the caviare. 'Oh, the blackberry jam,' he replied. 'They threw it out, sir. Said it tasted a bit fishy.')

Last year the official British imports of caviare totalled 32 tonnes, a 50 per cent rise on 1991. Of the 330 tonnes Russia exports annually (they keep twice as much for themselves), 80 per cent is bought by airlines. Sheena Lanagan, chief buyer for British Airways, was feeding eagerly despite her no- nonsense attitude. 'It's ridiculous the way people go on about the different subtleties of Sevruga and Beluga: in Astrakhan they give the stuff to their children to make them grow up strong.'

BA will buy nearly three tons this year for pounds 750,000 - although Ms Lanagan said:'You lose 40 per cent of your taste when you're in flight, anyway.'

(Photograph omitted)