There are some words that are impossible to say without sounding fancy. “Caviar” is one of them. It is the hallmark of fine dining; the jewel in the crown of a sofa; one of the latest foods that, in a world of lobster and truffle puree, is still eye-catching. When the Sous Chef website surveyed the UK’s two and three Michelin star restaurants this month, it found that caviar featured on 72% of menus.
However, it cannot be denied that caviar has an image problem. Until just a few decades ago, fishermen harvested beluga sturgeons from the Caspian and Black Seas, cut up the “roe sacs” that contained their eggs, and dumped the fish to die. As a result, the sturgeon became critically endangered. The international trade in wild sturgeon from the region has been banned since 2006, and while there are a growing number of sturgeon farms around the world trying to make the process more sustainable, the methods used to extract the eggs and the morality of dedicating precious resources to produce this symbol of luxury means that the ethics of caviar remain vague.
“It’s not like shark fin soup, where desperate fishermen catch sharks, cut off their fins and throw them back,” says Chris King, executive chef at the Langham Hotel in London. “There is a moral issue in caviar, of course, but sturgeon can be farmed. Grown”. According to him, serving the caviar he procures for the Langham is no more or less ethically problematic than serving quality beef or farmed Scottish salmon. What matters to King is that he buys the best and serves it in such a way that his diners “understand what the fuss is about. Most people don’t have it often. It is important that they get a good chunk and that it is served elegantly.”
However, attitudes towards caviar sourcing and serving are changing. Although the Langham still offers it in those shiny round tins, to be eaten by the spoonful, it is rarely ordered these days; Demand for blinis with a dollop of crème fraiche has also gone. “These days, I sell a lot more caviar in dishes where it’s an element, like our caviar-roasted scallops,” says King. “Tastes are changing and people are wondering if tins and blinis are really the way to appreciate caviar, with all its nuances of texture and flavor.”
Charles Smith, head chef at Lords of the Manor hotel in Gloucestershire, says he values caviar “more for the flavor profile than the cachet that surrounds it.” He likes to serve it alongside native lobster, whose sweet meat pairs perfectly with the saltiness of the eggs. “There will always be people who walk into the hotel and want a can of caviar for its aesthetics, but for me it’s an ingredient,” he says. Gary Robinson, executive chef at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, takes a similar line: “We would only use caviar where a dish would enhance its flavor and texture, never for opulence or spectacle.”
In the past, Smith has dealt directly with a small producer in Germany: “I know these guys; they take care of their fish 24 hours a day, provide them with the right nutrition and environment, etc. I feel comfortable serving this caviar where I might not with a main supplier.”
So far, so above the table. However, even sustainable caviar can fall into murky waters. While some aquaculture farms harvest the roe along with the meat at the end of the sturgeon’s life, others remove the eggs while the fish are still alive, roughly every two years. This would be fine if sturgeon like salmon, trout, or other fish can be “milked” without too much trouble, but they aren’t. “These are prehistoric fish dating back 250 million years and haven’t changed much,” says Harry Ferguson, operations manager at Exmoor Caviar farm in Devon. “Your roe sac is not like a bag from which eggs spill. You have to make at least a two-inch incision and massage the roe in.” To its credit, this is better than killing wild sturgeon, and farms that produce caviar this way claim to do it as painlessly as possible.
In addition to the ethical issues surrounding egg removal, there is also the problem of “fish washing”, as Dr. Krzysztof Wojtas of Compassion in Wild Farming (CIWF) points out. “Mackerel, sardines and other forage fish are landed in Africa or South Asia and processed as food for carnivorous fish. By growing caviar, you are using food that could feed the many to make a high-value product for the few,” he says. The same could be said for salmon, another carnivorous farmed fish, but that’s hardly an endorsement when you consider how negatively salmon farming affects the environment.
“People buy themselves nice shoes, facials, and jewelry every day—of course, they should also buy caviar regularly,” says Mark Zaslavsky, CEO of Marky’s Caviar in the US. brunch. Yet just as farming has reduced salmon from a delicacy to a common sandwich stuffing, with the consequences of overstocking ranging from fish lice infestations to the contamination of surrounding waters with feces and chemicals, CIWF he fears that the same could happen with the sturgeon.
But that’s impossible, says Ferguson, who says that raising sturgeon is not like raising salmon. “There is nothing we can do to cheat the system. There is no advantage to a high planting density, because it will negatively affect the taste.” The same goes for poor levels of nutrition or wellness. No one is looking for cheap caviar, she says. “There is no point in us producing anything less than the best.”
Like Marky’s farm, Exmoor’s Caviar’s approach to producing sustainable and ethical caviar is to raise the fish to maturity and then use it all – roe, meat and organs. For King and Smith, the best way to respect caviar as an ingredient is to source it carefully, use it wisely (the Langham turns any caviar it doesn’t sell into a savory condiment), and serve it well. Some chefs outside of the high-end market are turning to alternative fish roe; others, like chef Chung Chow of New York’s Noreetuh Hawaiian restaurant, keep caviar for special occasions. “If we want to educate people about how caviar is produced, we need to depopulate it,” says Chow. “Having more consumers in the market will not solve the problem.”