Farming caviar has led to democratisation phenomenon: consumption has increased and the salted roe is easily available.

Victoria Burrows on that means to the industry Caviar has been one of the world’s most prestigious and sought after foodstuffs for thousands of years. It’s also the most expensive: Almas, from the rare albino beluga of the Iranian Caspian Sea, has sold for US$26,000 per kilo.

Although it is a very traditional symbol of prestige, caviar has, in the last two decades, become a much more modern product: as most sturgeon species have been fished near to extinction in the wild, and tighter limits on sales of their roe have been imposed, the fish are now being farmed around the world, from France to Japan, Vietnam to Italy.

China is now the greatest producer of caviar, accounting for 60 percent of worldwide production. Chinese brand Kaluga Queen, which farms sturgeon at Qiandao Lake in Zhejiang, is the biggest caviar company in the world.

Italy is the second-biggest producer, with France third.

Laurent Dulau, CEO of Sturia Caviar, which pioneered sturgeon farming in France in 1995, says caviar has been “democratised”.

“Thanks to farming, bearing in mind that caviar from wild sturgeon is now practically forbidden, consumption of caviar has become more and more popular – a democratisation phenomenon. Today caviar is used by chefs in their recipes as a luxurious condiment. Caviar can be also found in supermarkets in some countries such as France, so you can taste it at home,” he says.

But not everyone agrees. Oliver Denley, food buyer at London’s elegant Rosewood Hotel says that it is still an exclusive group of guests who indulge in caviar at the hotel.

“Caviar is one of those products that you either love or hate. To know you love it, you have to try it, which, unfortunately, a lot of the younger generation don’t get the chance to do,” he says.

“We find a very select and very particular type of clientele still insist on caviar whenever they visit us, and around 25 percent of them request the highest quality Russian Beluga Caviar.”

Beluga caviar can cost £2,500 per kilo, according to Denley, who buys the hotel’s caviar from French company Petrossian, who pick the finest caviar from source. The caviar at the hotel includes Chinese, Bulgarian and Russian varieties.

Japan only recently started exporting caviar. Miyazaki Caviar, the primary producer of Japanese caviar, started selling its product in Hong Kong, its first market outside Japan, last year.

The first sturgeon, a Siberian sturgeon, was taken to Japan in 1983, but it did not thrive in Japanese waters. After much experimenting with species and breeding methods, the Japanese selected Kyushu island’s Miyazaki Prefecture as the breeding location, and the North American white sturgeon as the species.

Miyazaki Caviar defies tradition also in that it is not salt-cured, but flash frozen using the same technique as for tuna.

Japan reportedly now has a stock of 50,000 white sturgeon, and harvests 200 to 300 per year. These figures are tiny on a world scale.

The Peninsula Hotel Hong Kong launched their caviar academy a few years ago to educate guests about caviar and its varieties, and allow diners a taste of this precious product.

The hotel stocks Oscietra (Acipenser Transmontanus, or white sturgeon) from Italy, Oscietra (Acipenser Baerii, or Siberian sturgeon) from France, and two varieties from China: Oscietra (Dauricus schrenckii, a hybrid of a male Acipenser schrenckii, or Amur sturgeon, a and female Huso dauricus, or Kaluga sturgeon), and Beluga (Huso dauricus).

The Dauricus schrenckii Oscietra (sometimes spelled Ossetra), the hotel’s house caviar, is the most popular with guests.

“This is a well-balanced caviar which is buttery, rounded and with a beautiful bite,” says Florian Trento, Group Executive Chef of The Peninsula Hong Kong. “We have Beluga caviar (Huso dauricus) available upon request.”

The hotel started the academy to showcase the different caviar products as they believe farmed caviar, which for some years was of poor quality and was described by chefs as tasting distinctly muddy, is now at a good level.

Dulau says that there is still a “real decrease in the average quality of the caviar found on the market.” Some producers are, of course, better than others, and Sturia is sold in Michelin-starred restaurants, palaces and 5-star hotels around the world, including in France, Japan, and Dubai. Sturia’s sturgeons are born and farmed in Aquitaine in Southwest France, near Bordeaux, where the caviar is also produced.

Dulau says that different regions show preferences for different caviars: “Japan loves our Sturia Primeur caviar, which is young and fresh tasting, or Sturia Jasmin caviar, which is slightly salty; in Russia, they prefer something powerful, such as our Sturia Origin, which is refined and is reminiscent of the wild caviar of long ago.”

It was Iran that was largely the producer of that famed wild caviar of long ago, and Iranian Beluga is still spoken of in dreamy terms. But, due to environmental degradation of the Caspian Sea and the ensuing export limits set by CITES and other organisations, plus politically motivated economic sanctions on the country as a whole, the Iranian caviar industry was brought to its knees.

Boosting caviar production through farms was once again on the country’s agenda a few years ago, but with the Trump administration pulling out of the nuclear deal and the reinstating of sanctions, the future of Iranian caviar is once more unclear.

Elsewhere, innovations in caviar production continue. A recent trend is a focus on “cruelty-free” caviar farming, with some small caviar farms producing no-kill varieties of caviar.

Traditionally, when harvesting roe, the female sturgeon is killed, then her eggs are removed. To avoid killing the fish, the “C-section caviar” technique was developed. This involves making a small incision in the fish to access her eggs. No chemicals are required to induce egg-laying, but the operation increases risk of fatal infection and can damage the fish’s ovaries, reducing future roe yields.

Another technique involves scanning a fish’s eggs by ultrasound, and when she is deemed ready a signalling protein is administered to “induce labour”, when the fish releases the eggs from a membranous sack in the belly cavity. The eggs are then gently pumped from the belly with a massaging technique.

Unfortunately for Denley, the caviar produced this way isn’t quite up to standard, although not everyone agrees.

“No-kill is a great idea, and I’m sure in the future this will be great, but the massaging technique I find crushes the eggs. When you compare it to the hand-picked Bulgarian Oscietra that we buy … It doesn’t come close,” he says.

Of course, the hand-picked Bulgarian Oscietra comes at a price; all discussion of caviar goes hand in hand with cost. It’s an expensive product and mark ups at each stage are significant.

“Out of all the products I buy I think caviar is probably the item I get called most about,” says Denley. “I think suppliers make good margins on caviar and they’re convinced we can make good margins on it, too.”