Science and transparency at the service of caviar produced in France – 2022-12-12 at 19:42


Preparing boxes of caviar at the Sturia aquaculture farm, December 7, 2022, near Bordeaux (AFP / GEORGES GOBET)

In an aquaculture farm near Bordeaux, Christophe Baudon passes an ultrasound machine on the stomach of a sturgeon to test its eggs and ensure the quality of the caviar produced in France.

“Caviar!” he announces as the monitor shows the right glint around each round grain, before shouting “too ripe!”, a sign that the pregnancy cycle has gone too far and the eggs have softened and lost that crucial crunch. The female will therefore return to the water for two years.

For the company Sturia, the flagship brand of the leading French caviar producer, Sturgeon, it is an incredibly difficult process: 20,000 fish per year undergo an ultrasound for 18 tons of caviar.

A process made essential by global warming. Because with warmer water, which accelerates the pregnancy cycle, a large number of eggs are more and more often overripe.

“We have seen the conditions develop in recent years, less and less harsh winters, it has been ten years since we saw ice on the ponds”, emphasizes Christophe Baudon.

One in twenty fish died in 2021 when the water temperature reached 30°, five degrees above a sturgeon’s comfort zone.

“You may not know each one by name, but it is never nice to pull a dead fish out of the water – and of course the costs for the group are enormous,” emphasizes Sturia boss Laurent Dulau.

Fished to extinction in the wild – including Russian and Iranian waters in the Caspian Sea – sturgeon are now found almost exclusively on farms, mostly in China.

In the Gironde, the sturgeon has been fished for centuries, but its eggs have never been particularly valued: in the Middle Ages they were even given to pigs.

It was the Armenian immigrants Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian, the founders of the brand of the same name, who brought the fashion for caviar to France at the beginning of the 20th century.

They first persuaded César Ritz to put Caspian sturgeon eggs on the menu in his palaces before opening their shop in Paris.

– “Less but better” –

In France, farming only started in the 1990s and has been growing since the ban on wild caviar in 2008.

A risky project because it can take up to 10 years to breed a sturgeon… and discover that the quality of the caviar is not there. The first caviars tasted like mud, which is better and better controlled. But it is the Chinese caviar schrenki with golden grains and a rounder and more complex flavor that is favored by French chefs.

Unable to compete with China in terms of volume, French producers rely on sustainable agriculture. Ultrasound thus avoids killing the sturgeons unnecessarily, and they do not use antibiotics.

Sturia uses sturgeon meat for rillettes, the skin for leather and the swim bladder for a specialized glue prized by luthiers.

Sir. Dulau says that the emphasis on traceability and quality strengthens caviar’s image after the overfishing crisis: “The idea is to produce less, but better”.

Michel Berthommier, another caviar producer from Aquitaine called Caviar Perlita, is frustrated that “nine out of 10 French restaurants, maybe 10 out of 10” still source their supplies from China. “We sell more in Singapore than to restaurants 10 km from here,” he says, although he believes the transparency of French production will end up winning over the buyers.

“Before there was a mystery about how these fish were raised. Today we are completely transparent about how our fish live, how we feed them, how we make our choices”.

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