Caviar remains the ultimate luxury food — except these days the Caspian delicacy likely comes from a farm! Exports of wild sturgeon eggs —culled to make caviar — have been severely restricted since 1998, under UN quotas set to protect the species from chaotic overfishing after the fall of the Soviet Union. For the past two years, there have been next-to-no wild sturgeon’s eggs available on world markets, save for black gold trafficked out illegally from the five countries that share the Caspian Sea shores.
Deprived of wild raw material, caviar houses turned towards an alternative source, like France’s Armen Petrossian, whose Armenian father introduced the delicacy to Paris in the 1920s and who started using farmed eggs in 1998. Today, Petrossian — a veritable caviar “tsar” whose specialist boutiques account for 15 per cent of the world market — works exclusively with farms, as do his global competitors. Farmed caviar, whose pearls range in colour from honey to dark grey, can offer the “best or the worst”, Petrossian says.
“There is nothing generic about caviar — it’s a complex product,” he said. “We select and refine the eggs, we let them mature. Petrossian sources from a network of producers in south-western France, but also in the United States, China and Bulgaria, working with them to improve the quality of the raw material. “When we visit farms, we can intervene on the number of fish, their food, the position of the pools, the moment at which they cull the eggs,” he said. Twelve years on, he claims the farmed result can match the original.
Global production of farmed caviar has soared from 500 kg in 1998 to 150 tonnes today — even as legal sales of wild caviar dwindled from 300 tonnes to close to zero. Angling to seduce a younger clientele, Petrossian recently launched slightly lower priced formats like pressed caviar, caviar aperitif cubes or tiny caviar-on-the-go boxes. “But it will never be a cheap product,” he admitted.