Extra caviare gives a foretaste of recovery

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FORGET the gloom about house prices. Caviare imports - the ultimate indicator of a nation's economic health - are on the increase. Britain is now eating at least 10 tons more caviare than in 1991, when the recession was near its lowest ebb and sausage rolls and Beaujolais were the order of the day at parties.

Government figures released last week show that Britain imported 32.8 tons of caviare in 1993, the latest year for which figures are available, compared with 22.8 tons in 1991.

With a pot of Beluga caviare fetching £310 for 250 grams, the eggs are not a cheap investment.

Numerous substitutes are available on the market, but, after four years of compromising, British palates want the real thing.

Britain imported 101/2 tons fewer of substitute caviare in 1993 than the year before.

"It's the better quality one that sells," said a spokesman for Harrods in London. "We've noticed that things are definitely picking up. It's everything in luxury food we're seeing that's selling much more. We've also just opened an oyster bar which is phenomenally successful."

The figures emerged from a parliamentary question put by Labour MP Gordon Prentice to the Minister for Agriculture, Michael Jack.

Most caviare, produced from the eggs of sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, originates from Russia and Iran.

A large sturgeon can contain caviare equal in value to two Rolls-Royces, and sturgeon eggs have been the subject of bitter wranglings between exporters.

The three main types of caviare - Beluga, Sevruga and Osetrova - vary subtly in texture and taste, according to the temperature and depth of the water in which the sturgeon lives.

Commonly served with blinis or sour cream and lemons, caviare keeps for only a year and must be stored at -4C or -5C.

France, Europe's biggest importer of caviare, likes to maintain a steady supply for its tables all year round.

In Britain, caviare remains a symbol of luxury and decadence, and demand fluctuates according to financial optimism. Caviare imports peaked in 1988 - the height of the Lawson boom when house prices also peaked - at 44.6 tons.