One might be interested to know (though not surprised considering the reputation of French products) that Aquitaine Caviar is some of the best in the world. France is in fact one of the largest producers of sturgeon caviar, after China and Italy. Some reports have China producing nearly 50% of the world’s caviar, with one producer in Northern Italy producing another 15%. The fall of the Soviet Union was in fact very hard on their caviar industry, with quality controls once more stringent disappearing. This time period coincided with the end of ‘wild’ caught sturgeon, thus also changing the flavor and texture of caviar. Wild sturgeon caviar was said to have offered a more pronounced ‘pop’ in your mouth. While caviar is noted to have been consumed for millennia in the area, Iran made a very intelligent business decision after the Iranian Revolution and decided to allow the farming and harvesting of sturgeon, even though the fish do not have scales (required by any fish consumed by haram/ Shiite law).
The massive pre-historic fish that once swam freely and abundantly through nearly all of the European rivers are now essentially extinct. You will never find wild sturgeon caviar anymore; it is all farmed (no matter what the label says). The lifestyle of the fish from wild to farm has apparently changed the flavor and texture of the product itself. While these two points can already vary between species, the Siberian/Baerii caviar tending to have a more earthy flavor with the Osetra leaning towards more oyster flavor for example, they are still very different from those who would remember caviar before the 1980’s.
Petrossian was the first French producer, starting in Paris in 1920 by two Armenian refugees, remains the most prestigious in France. In the Aquitaine region we have Sturgia, Perlita, Neuvic and Prunier (to name a few). The producers in the Aquitaine region account for 80% of the caviar produced in France. In recent years, the many trout farms which dotted the landscape have now morphed into sturgeon farms.
While a massive production now, caviar was not the original reason for this type of aquiculture in France…the flesh of the sturgeon, a white and versatile meat, was originally most prized. All producers still sell the meat, generally to restaurants directly. The method of harvesting the eggs and meat at the same time, rather than extracting only the eggs, is used for consumption (for reproduction, a surgical method is used).
There is a process called ‘milking’, where fish are given a drug to start ‘labor’ but this has proven to alter the taste of the eggs, so is less ideal. As the stress a female sturgeon experiences before harvesting will directly impact the eggs, the females are not in contact with visitors at most farms and are kept in quiet, dark spaces for days or weeks prior to harvest.
Only fish roe from the sturgeon fish can be called caviar, the rest are simply ‘roe’. As only the females are used for caviar production, the males are harvested for their flesh much younger than the average age of a female (8-12 years for many, up to 20 for some).
Many aquaculture farms are working on ways to reduce harmful waste from the used waters, one in the USA is actually using these waters to grow plants indoors as the nutrient rich waters are great for plants. Once again, I learn that North Carolina, besides Black Perigord Truffles, also produces caviar! Wild. When I moved to Gironde, immediately it reminded me of home…and here is just another example.
Locally, in Gironde, they are also starting to release baby sturgeon into the rivers in hopes of repopulating this endangered species.
There is still so much to share, I hope to take you on a tour in Bordeaux or to a local sturgeon farm to learn more about the production, and how to taste, this wonderful local product!