Virtually all caviar on the market is farmed becoming an increasingly international business. While China is the leading producer of farmed caviar, more parts of the world are working to produce the precious unfertilised salt-cured fish eggs. Jane Ram reports.

Caviar has a long history as a delicacy. According to Food Republic newsletter, long before gourmets discovered the delights of raw oysters, before Champagne, even before truffles, the Ancient Greeks, the Romans and Russian tsars were all indulging in caviar. Virtually all caviar on the market these days is farmed, with ever more parts of the world working to produce the precious unfertilised salt-cured fish eggs from any one of about 25 species of sturgeon.

Production of caviar is slow and labour intensive, which means that it will always be a luxury. But as new sources come into production, it is becoming more affordable generally.

Countries around the Caspian Sea wrongly assumed the international ban on catching wild sturgeon in 2006 would be temporary. In consequence they were late starters in creating farmed stocks, giving the edge to competitors in many other parts of the world. Those who were fortunate enough to taste wild caviar will take some convincing, but as techniques have improved, outstanding farmed caviar has become an increasingly international business.

Ruling the Market

China is now the world’s leading producer of farmed caviar as well as the number one consumer. Competitors include Thailand, the USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria and a number of other European countries. Even the UK is trying its hand at caviar production, with one Yorkshire fishery working on what it claims is the world’s first ethically sourced sturgeon caviar, using massage to extract the eggs without killing the animal.

The pristine waters of China’s Thousand Islands Lake, some 500 kilometres southwest of Shanghai, suit surgeon very well. Kaluga Queen farm is the best established and it has increasingly dominated the international market since producing its first caviar in 2006, says Andreas Muller, Programme Director (International Cuisine), International Culinary Institute, Hong Kong. “Kaluga Queen produces class A quality Beluga, Sevruga and Osietra. Alain Ducasse, Nobu, Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire are among the many restaurateurs who buy Chinese caviar because of good quality, reasonable price, and ample stock. French caviar house Kaviari sources its roe from Italy, Germany, France, Bulgaria, Iran and, of course, China,” says Muller. “If the price is competitive, Chinese caviar will surely fill the upper and even medium market demand.”

Singaporeans are the biggest regional consumers of caviar, says Muller citing reports of lavish parties where guests slurp their caviar not by tins, but rather by kilos. A recent party attended by 120 guests reportedly consumed 24 kgs of Keluga Queen Osietra Caviar.

According to Newsweek magazine, Kaluga Queen’s output of 45 tons of caviar in 2015, made it indisputably the world’s largest single producer of farmed caviar. The company aims at a maximum annual production of 60 tons, some 75 per cent of which will be for export worldwide. Labelling is not always transparent however as recent research has shown that 17 of 20 top restaurants in Paris are using Chinese caviar although sometimes through French brands.

Not all caviars are equal and labelling is not always transparent, sometimes omitting important details. Consumers should be wary of the general European and Middle Eastern permitted usage of 0.4per cent E285 (sodium tetraborate) despite the ban on E285 in Southeast Asia and the US.

China will face increasingly stiff competition in the next decade. The Japanese have been experimenting with freeze-drying roes to speed up the process. This type of caviar proved popular when it was introduced to Hong Kong diners at the Four Seasons in April this year.

Thailand gets into the act

Working with a Thai partner, Alex Tyutin, managing director of Caviar House, has developed a sturgeon farm in Hua Hin that will come into production in about four years, as the fish mature. “Actually we are on the fastest way to get caviar than any other farm as we maintain a constant temperature of +22.5C.

“This is our third year working in Thailand doing a lot of promotions, events, educating customers and also creating a bigger demand for caviar as our farm annual production will be 1.5 tons a year. The Thai market for caviar is growing and we are taking a serious part in directing this process; I believe that in 3 -4 years caviar consumption will double and for that we lowered the prices on all items including fine Beluga caviar to stimulate more sales.

“In 2018 we are opening a restaurant next to the farm that will have mostly dishes of sturgeon and caviar in the menu and when we start our own production we plan to drop prices again; we plan to achieve 1.5 – 2 tons of caviar sales per year only in Thailand. We have no plan to export Thai caviar to the international market; the reason is that world prices are low and have continued to drop over the past five years.”

“We do only true Fresh Malossol caviar in Russian style with no preservatives added, no pasteurization and our products have from 2.8per cent to 3.2per cent of salt maximum. That limits us with expiration time but we prefer to deliver the best taste of caviar to our customers. We’ve reduced the salt percentage dramatically because most Thai people do not like caviar being too salty and also with a fishy smell.

“The company is also importing caviar into Thailand mostly from China where I’m a partner in a Chinese farm. There I’m involved in caviar production and I also supervise sales in a few regions. Caviar prices in Hong Kong and Singapore are much higher than we charge in Bangkok. I look after sales in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Russia and Malaysia as well as Thailand. Hong Kong and Singapore have the highest prices and the biggest demand calculated in kilos per person per year.

“Mainland China is a huge but slow growing market, with Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing the top spending cities. Russia consumes more caviar than any Asian country but it produces caviar locally, much cheaper than in China for example and the quality is lower. The Malaysian market is the smallest, it has little demand and has not yet been structured. Religion is an issue as all members of the royal family are Muslim, so the caviar must have Halal certification, which our farm in China can provide.”