Caviar is one of the world’s most luxurious, expensive and rare products, selling for up to $5000 a kilo. It comes from endangered sturgeon fish and its sale is strictly controlled by international trade in endangered species laws. Beluga sturgeon are one of the world’s most endangered species.
John Giovannini from Calvisius Caviar is the world’s biggest producer, responsible for 30 tonnes of the 120 tonne global supply from a 60-hectare farm at the foothills of Italy’s northern Piemonte region. His family have been growing and farming sturgeon there since the early 90s, converting their trout farm to this luxury product.
You might expect John to be gold-toothed-rat-flash with cash after 30 years in the business, but before you rush to start up your own caviar farm (you’ll also find them in France, Spain, California, Iran, China, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and even England) he told Business Insider you’d probably make more money selling pizza and coffees.
Why? Well, for starters, it takes at least 10 years for a sturgeon to reach maturity, ready for harvesting, and they don’t all mature at once, so if you miss a fish with eggs, it re-absorbs them and doesn’t spawn again for two years. So it takes up to 15 years before some fish are harvested.
And to tell when a sturgeon’s eggs are ready, you have to jump in the pond with an 80kg, 2-metre long fish, turn it upside down and rub its belly, then just to be doubly sure, do a biopsy to make sure the eggs are up to scratch.
And there’s only one harvest, of between 2 and 6 kilograms of unfertilised eggs, from the killed fish (the meat itself is enjoyable, but you can’t get it in Australia). The fish is harvested about 3 months before the eggs reach full maturity.
In that time, you’ve got to feed the sturgeon, hope nothing goes wrong health-wise (temperature plays a critical role in egg production) and hope that no-one comes along and pockets a fish or two, since they’re worth a least a couple of grand each.
Because sturgeon are endangered, every single fish is certified and accounted for and you need a permit to export the caviar under the CITES program for endangered animals.
And the eggs from each sturgeon are individually packed and graded, because the flavours and quality vary from fish to fish.
Most people think of Russia, Beluga and the Caspian Sea when caviar is mentioned, but the reason the farmed version is now so prevalent is because Beluga sturgeon from the Caspian were so critically endangered, Russian authorities banned wild caviar production in 2008 for four years to let stocks recover. A global ban on wild caviar trade has been in place since 2006.
At the top of the caviar tree is Beluga, from the sturgeon of the same name (scientific name: Hugo hugo). It’s a large, predatory fish growing to a massive 3 tonnes and 8-metres, with a life span of nearly 120 years, but you won’t find any that size in the Caspian any more. In fact, it’s teetering on the verge of extinction in the wild.
Beluga produce the largest caviar eggs ranging from grey to black in colour, with a creamy texture. The fish take 20 years to mature.
Oscietra caviar is the next best, from Russian sturgeon which grow to just a 10th of the size of Beluga. The caviar ranges in colour from warm amber hues to grey and light brown, with a nutty flavour. Calvisius grades its oscietra in three levels, based, in part, on colour.
Next somes Sevruga caviar from sevruga stugeon, the smallest of the species, growing to just 25kg. The roe ranges in colour from medium grey to black and has spicy notes.
Calvisius in Italy also raises Adriatic sturgeon, selling its caviar under the Da Vinci brand. A shipment is currently on its way to providore Simon Johnson, who told Business Insider he expects it to retail for 10-15% less than the oscietra caviar.
They also farm white sturgeon, a species from North America’s Pacific coast, as well as Siberian sturgeon, but unfortunately, like the Beluga, it’s not available in Australia.
Italy has a long history of caviar production, with three of the 25 sturgeon species found in the rivers and oceans of Italy’s boot.
They were even found in the Tibor River running through Rome and some 500 years ago, any sturgeon over 116cm automatically belonged to the city’s three noble families.
I tasted the Calvisius Da Vinci and Oscietra caviars at Simon Johnson.
The Da Vinci has a clean, fresh taste, a little minerally, salty of course, but you get this crisp, clear flavour that makes you think of the mountain waters they’re raised in.
The Oscietra is far more meaty, yeasty and complex, with an earthy, nutty taste and loads of umami – that beefy ‘fifth’ flavour identified by the Japanese, which made me think of Vegemite.
We had it with Krug Champagne, ’cause, you know, YOLO and all that.
Simon Johnson recalls the first time he had caviar as a teenage apprentice in New Zealand, preparing a hotel dinner for the late Margaux Hemingway.
“It’s one of the great products of the world, that if you can afford it, it’s worth experiencing,” he said.
So any tips?
“If you’re going to do it, do it properly. You’ve got to be generous. Put a nice big tin in the middle of the table,” Johnson said.
A what about all those condiments, such as sour cream and onions, to go with it? Avoid them he says.
“They’re used to hide the fact that the caviar isn’t very good.”
The whole idea is to taste what you’ve paid all that money for.
So why am I eating it off my hand?
The tradition dates from an earlier time when caviar was often tasted before purchase and the sample was spooned onto the hand (you didn’t want to share spoons in Renaissance Italy).
Speaking of spoons, never use a metal one, because it reacts with the caviar, adding a sulphurous note. Traditionally, a mother of pearl spoon is used.
Calvisius oscietra from Simon Johnson is priced as follows:
$225 for 50g
$550 for 125g
$1900 for 500g.
John Giovanni from Calvisius Caviar offers this advice on how to eat it.
First of all, caviar should be stored in the fridge (between -2°C and +2°C) and served immediately. placing the can on a plate decorated with ice to taste by teaspoon.
The teaspoon should be made of mother of pearl or bone because metal spoons can alter the flavour.
How to enjoy it
Place the caviar on the back of your hand between your thumb and index finger. Your hand helps you feel the temperature and verify its shape, dimensions and colour.
Good caviar should never leave odours on your hand after a tasting.
Furthermore, the hand can provide it with the right amount of heat, allowing it to better unleash its flavour.
What to match it with
Caviar is often served alongside hard boiled eggs, sour cream, lemon, onion and croutons. These sides were chosen to offset the saltiness of preserved caviar, but now it’s less salty.
Nowadays, a pure tasting lets you appreciate all its traits, but it is possible to match it with a small amount of a light starch, such as potatoes, rice or grain.
To drink, try a good vodka, an extra-dry Champagne, or dry or extra-dry Franciacorta.
How to serve it
Caviar is traditionally served on blini (small buckwheat pancakes) or simply on warm buttered toast with no salt.
A variation is with slightly warm, steamed, unpeeled potato. Cut it in half, form small holes on each side, fill them with caviar, close it and eat it whole, releasing an incredible sensation.
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