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Is all caviar farmed?

We still do get asked this question by customers, and the simple answer is “Yes”. Although many people still firmly associate caviar with Russia, Iran and the Caspian Sea, the reality today is very different.

Some twenty years ago, the restrictions on fishing for wild sturgeon in the Caspian became looser. At much the same time, many of the countries around the Caspian were becoming more industrialised, particularly with the expansion of the oil and gas industry in the region. The subsequent over fishing, pollution and modification of rivers had a catastrophic effect on the wild sturgeon population.

At the start of this time, caviar prices fell dramatically due to the increased supply, but this did not last long. Prices soon rose to exorbitant levels as the sturgeon became scarcer, and quality declined as fisherman harvested what they could rather than what they should.

In 2009, the export of wild sourced caviar from the Caspian region was prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). So yes, all caviar on sale in the UK should be from farmed sturgeon and CITES registered to prove the fact. Every tin or jar should have a security seal and carry a CITES number.

Fortunately for us caviar dealers and consumers, the sturgeon farming industry was already up and running well before the Caspian Sea supply problems and subsequent ban on wild caviar. Sturgeon were being farmed in parts of Europe as far back as the 1970s. The initial aim was to produce fish for the sport fishing market, with some meat production. More focus was applied to caviar production as prices rose and supplies dwindled. The rising prices attracted the attention of others and the sturgeon and caviar farming industry began developing in earnest across the world.

Today, we can source caviar from many European countries as well as further afield. There are farms in Canada, USA, Uruguay, Israel, Iran, Dubai, South Korea and, of course, China. I know of farms in other parts of the world that will be coming to the market in the next few years.

Farming caviar is far from a “get-rich-quick” operation. Sturgeon are generally large fish and are slow to mature. The Siberian sturgeon (Baerii) is widely used by the farming industry as it produces very good caviar and matures in “only” 7-8 years. Other species will take longer with the mighty Beluga (Huso Huso) taking 18-20 to mature.

However, it is possible for a new “farm” to produce caviar much quicker than that. Mature sturgeon can be bought and then imported to be processed on the farm. I do not regard this as either ethical or desirable and will avoid caviar from such operations.

Sturgeon farms can be out doors or indoors, with water flowing through the farm or re-circulated. Generally speaking, I prefer an outdoor farm, where untreated water is able to flow through the fish ponds. This seems more natural to me and so more likely to produce caviar more akin to wild caviar than a highly controlled, industrialised, indoor operation.

Producing top quality farmed caviar is no simple task. The fish need to be from the right stock, the water quality and temperature need to be perfect and the feed must be the best quality. Sturgeon can store the flavours of their environment in their eggs. Hence an indoor farm with a poor treatment system on its re-circulated water may produce caviar with a hint of ammonia. An outdoor farm with dirty ponds may produce caviar that tastes of mud. If the water is too warm, the caviar can be mushy. And then there is the processing of the caviar……..

The farming of sturgeon has brought many advantages to the caviar industry. No longer do we just think of Beluga, Oscietra and Sevruga as the three types of caviar. There are a whole range of species being farmed, plus a bewildering array of hybrid sturgeon. China has its own sturgeon species on which its industry is based.

As the industry has developed, so supply has increased and prices have come down. Caviar is now more affordable than it has been for about 30 years so more people are able to enjoy more of this fantastic delicacy. However, the quality is variable and it is my job to make sure that you can enjoy the very best available.

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