France is the third largest producer of caviar in the world, after China and Italy. The French are also the third biggest consumers, and have a long association with this particular gourmet food – unfertilised sturgeon eggs.
Caviar was first written about as a food in the 9th century, where it was eaten by Persians who fished in the Caspian Sea. It was then introduced into the Russian court where the Tsars served it at their sumptuous banquets.
Other European countries were gradually introduced to caviar, but it was during Les Années Folles of the 1920s that it became the symbol of luxury when it was introduced into France by Russians fleeing the Russian Revolution.
It became so popular that sturgeon began dying out and as wild sturgeon fishing started to be outlawed in many countries, the concept of commercial farming began to develop, from the 1990s onwards.
In the last ten years, there has been a huge rise in farmed caviar production across the globe. All activity involving international trade is highly regulated and must be accompanied by permits from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
There are several species of sturgeon, all of which have appeared on the endangered list. The most commonly known is the Beluga, which was widely fished in the Caspian Sea and reputed to give some of the finest caviar.
Each species gives eggs which are different in taste, and has to be treated in a particular way to produce the best caviar.
The species most commonly farmed in France is the Siberian sturgeon, Acipenser Baeril. Most farms are in Nouvelle-Aquitaine and some in Sologne, the Centre-Val de Loire region covering parts of the Loiret, Loir-et-Cher and Cher.
Caviar Perlita, at Le Teich, Gironde was one of the three companies which pioneered farming sturgeon in France in the early 1990s. It was also the first to raise the sturgeon from egg to caviar producing fish.
Michel Berthommier, director of Caviar Perlita says around 100,000 larvae are born every spring on their farm:
“In the summer we select around 35,000 and leave these to develop over the next three years.
It is only then we are able to sex them, by using a scanner. The males are killed and the females are left to develop for another six to seven years, each fish maturing at its own rhythm.
“When we think they are mature, they are scanned once again, and we only harvest them when we are absolutely sure the eggs are at peak condition, measuring at least 2.5mm.
The scanning machine is right next to the pools so the fish are only out of the water for a very short time and do not get distressed. Once the female is killed we take out the eggs, which are then rinsed, salted, drained, sorted and packaged all on the same day, and the caviar is then ready to sell.”
When the female sturgeon is killed, up to 10% of her body weight is eggs.
A fish may weigh between five and seven kilos, so he may get up to 700grams from one fish.
It is important the female sturgeons are not with any males, as caviar eggs are unfertilised. As soon as they are fertilised their taste and texture changes and they are unpleasant to eat.
The males are killed and sold to eat, and sturgeon is becoming increasingly popular in its own right.
The price of a long process
It is around a ten-year-long process, which is one of the reasons why caviar is so expensive.
Caviar Perlita (pictured left) is sold at two different prices according to quality. The smallest 20g tin of basic caviar sells for €42.00, and €950 for 500g, so €1,900 a kilo; Perlita Rare is €54 for 20g and €1,190 for 500g, so €2,380 a kilo.
The higher grade eggs are bigger, each one measuring more than 2.8mm.
Caviar is easily the most expensive luxury food in France. Black truffles can cost between €500 and €1,000 a kilo, depending on the year, and the best foie gras sells at around a comparatively modest €100 per kilo.
Mr Berthommier says caviar is expensive because it is a rare product. It is in a different category from trout’s eggs because, he says, they only take three years to produce.
He prides his farm on its traceability.
Every stage in every sturgeon’s life has been followed, and he says the better fish are looked after, the better eggs they will produce. “We select only the best specimens. Each one is electronically tagged so we can follow its development daily, and are better able to judge when it comes to maturity.
“We are sure of the quality of water they are in, as we have installed an extremely sophisticated filtration method so that the sturgeons always develop in a clean and pure water, kept at a constant temperature, with no adverse effect on the environment.”
For him, a good caviar is difficult to describe: “It depends, like a wine, on the personal preferences of each person. It is easier to describe what makes caviar bad. There should be no smell. It should be neither bitter nor acidic. The taste should be smooth, with no sharpness, which indicates too much salt has been added. Fresh caviar should have a mellowness and suppleness and every egg should be perfect.”
He, together with three other producers have formed the Association Caviar d’Aquitaine, which together represent more than 80% of the national production, around 15 tonnes of caviar a year.
They are now applying for an IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) label to protect the product’s quality.
Though production of caviar has rapidly increased in recent years, it remains a product for the wealthy.
A report into caviar production by the EU, found it was mostly sold and eaten in Michelin-starred restaurants, special retail shops, high-end hotels, airliners with exclusive first and business class and exclusive cruise ships.
It is mostly eaten at Christmas, New Years and Valentine’s Day and also for celebrations such as weddings.
The supermarket Lidl introduced caviar into its shops in 2016 to sell this luxury item to a wider public.
It sold then for a knock-down price of €9.99 for 15g. However, according to a report by consumer magazine UFC Que Choisir, the cheap caviar was disappointing, looking dull in appearance, smelled slightly fishy and lacked in taste and finesse.
The caviar was imported from the Italian company Agroittica, which is in terms of this food, a mass producer, making 15% of the world’s production in over 150 acres of pools. UFC Que Choisir, concluded that it was probably better to eat cheaper salmon eggs than a downmarket caviar.
It seems there is no getting away from the fact that you have to pay big money for the ultimate gourmet experience.
And the best way to eat it?
According to Petrossian, the Parisian company which has been selling caviar since it was first introduced to the capital city in the 1920s, it should be served in its tin, with nothing to accompany it, neither blinis, nor crème fraîche, so as to fully appreciate its unique flavour.