Rivals reap rich harvest of food for kings: Iranians believe they have the edge over neighbouring former Soviet republics in producing caviar from the Caspian sea, writes Charles Richards

ON THE placid waters of the Caspian sea, the huge inland lake between Europe and Asia, the historic rivalry between Iran and the former Soviet republics is being played out in the latest variation of the Great Game.

At stake is the multi-million- pound trade in the delicacy which more than any other carries the cachet of luxury: caviar. Money is not the only prize. This form of black gold earns Iran only tens of millions of dollars a year in foreign exchange - a drop in the ocean compared with oil exports, measured in billions. As significant is the reputation of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a reliable source of a high quality product.

The market has been rocked by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Once all Soviet production was marketed by a single trading house. Now all four former Soviet republics bordering the Caspian - Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan - are producing their own caviar. In their rush for hard currency, they have been flooding the market with caviar of often dubious quality, according to the Iranians.

Last August, representatives of the five producer states met in the Iranian port of Bandar Anzali to discuss how to co-ordinate pricing and fisheries policies. The meeting had the makings of a cartel, but did not achieve much. Now each producer is seeking to maximise profits in the way it sees best: the Iranians through strict quality control, the former Soviet republics by selling as much as possible.

Caviar as a delicacy used to be reserved for shahs and tsars. Over time their imperial majesties began to share their pleasure with the royal houses of Europe, to whom they presented caviar as gifts. After the revolution in Russia, caviar became almost daily fare. Out of an annual catch of 700 tons, less than 100 tons were exported. Iran produces about 240 tons a year, of which 200 tons is exported through the sole trader, the state owned Shilat Trading Corporation.

Their export markets differed too. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the United States has banned direct imports from Iran. Most Iranian caviar goes to Europe. Duty also varies. On caviar from the former Soviet Union it is 30 per cent, on that from Iran it is 12 per cent. Iran can therefore sell its product at a higher price.

But it is on quality that Iran believes it has the competitive edge. Traditional methods still bring the raw eggs of the sturgeon to the silver spoons of the rich. At the Newisi fishing station at the eastern end of the south Caspian shore, the fishermen leave before dawn in their small craft to check the nets. This is the season for sevruga, the most common of the three types of sturgeon found in the Caspian. The others are asetra or ocietre and the grandest of all, beluga.

On one of the fishing boats, four men pulled up nets that stretched for 3kms (two miles) at right angles to the shoreline. Every so often, they find a mature fish caught by the gills in the mesh. The fish are hauled on board, their nozzles bound and then they are lowered over the boat again so that they can arrive alive and fresh at the caviar processing station on the beach. The men reject more modern fishing methods. Trawling would destroy stocks, they say.

The men can tell immediately from the shape of the belly which are the egg-bearing females and which are males. The latter are sold for their flesh.

Two men lift a female fish on to a platform, still alive. One makes a swift incision from below the gills down the belly. They then slowly lift out the eggs, contained in two membranes, packed one on either side like grey ox tongues. These are carefully lifted into a stainless steel vessel, washed, placed on a sieve to remove the membrane, weighed again, then taken next door where another mixes the eggs with pure salt, ground fine like icing sugar. This preserves the caviar and gives it its salty taste.

The eggs are graded, packed in tins, and refrigerated. It takes less than 10 minutes from opening the fish to packing the eggs. They are then taken to the central depot, where they are inspected, graded, and packed for shipment to Tehran.

The supervisor of the packing station, Gholamreza Eshramdi, says the industry has changed since the revolution. 'The fishermen are better looked after, and better paid. And we are more sensitive to the ecology of the industry and fish husbandry.'

For the first time, sturgeon are being bred in captivity and the smelts released into the sea once they reach a finger's length. But it is too early to judge the success of this experiment.

The fishermen are confident that the special quality of the water in the Caspian, with its high potassium content, is unmatchable. And they extol the qualities of the clear, deep Iranian waters as against the more polluted, shallow waters of the northern Caspian.

The challenge is finding new and reliable markets. Italians consume seven to eight tons a year, but buy it through suppliers, such as the Geneva-based Caviar House.

'Our problem is not selling,' says Akbar Alireza, the export manager. 'It is selling to the right people. We do not want buyers to purchase our caviar, then mix it with stuff from the ex-Soviet republics and pass it off as Iranian.'

(Photograph omitted)

(Map omitted)

Life and Style
life
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
health
News
Joan Rivers has reportedly been hospitalised after she stopped breathing during surgery
people81-year-old 'stopped breathing' during vocal chord surgery
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
fashion

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, UI, JMX, FIX)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, U...

Structured Finance

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - An excellent new instruction w...

SQL Server Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Server Developer SQL, PHP, C#, Real Time,...

C#.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, Win Forms, WPF, WCF, MVVM...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone