Caviar: More than just posh nosh?

By Samantha Fenwick
Radio 4 You and Yours Reporter

image captionTraditionally caviar has come from wild sturgeon caught in waters round the Black Sea coast

The heavy set bouncers outside Ruski's Tavern would not look out of place guarding the Kremlin.

The west London bar is frequented by city socialites, including Prince Harry's latest girlfriend Cressida Bonas, but for now they're making do with me. I've been seated in a red velvet-clad room in front of a platter of vodka and caviar.

Owners Diego Bivero-Volpe and Antoin Commane say their caviar and vodka theme is a new concept for London.

Antoin suggests that while it may currently be seen as pretentious, caviar could become as popular as lobster or champagne.

He says that its image is changing, just as 20 years ago wine may have been seen as a drink for women but now appeals to all: "We think you'll see caviar soon in sandwich shops."

With a platter for six people costing £66 it can work out less expensive than a gourmet burger per person - hardly the preserve of the super-rich.

Matthew Du Cann, who supplies Ruski's Tavern can afford to lower his prices. He sources his eggs from around the world and the fact that the UK only eats 1.5 tonnes of caviar a year is an advantage.

"We have a big HQ in Dubai and we sell to 95% of the UAE and that gives us huge buying power," he says.

"Because the consumption rate is so much higher there than in the UK, we're able to offer caviar [in the UK] at 30% less than our competitors."

'Easy fish to farm'

Changes to farming methods have also played a part.

Caviar is the eggs of the sturgeon. Overfishing saw it being given endangered species status in 2002 and trade in wild caviar was restricted, but since then farmers have been perfecting techniques for rearing them in captivity.

Farming began in the late 1980s, but the first results were poor, with some batches described as tasting like toothpaste.

Only one farm in the UK produces caviar from sturgeon.

image captionThe eggs of a sturgeon can only be harvested after eight years

Looking out across Pat Noble's land in Exmoor you first see the massive, circular tanks, six metres in diameter, full of the fish, which tend to spend most of their time at the bottom of the tanks.

One of his 10kg sturgeon will produce about 1kg of caviar. The eggs are removed and the meat is sold as food.

"They're an easy fish to farm, they don't suffer many diseases, a lot of fish farmers are forever having to vaccinate their stock," says Mr Noble.

"We don't have to do that with these fish and they have no chemical treatments."

But he adds: "You have to keep your stock alive for seven or eight years before you get a return. That's why caviar is a relatively expensive product."

Supermarket sales

If you look on your supermarket shelves you're unlikely to find sturgeon caviar, but you may find roe from the capelin, a small fish found in the Arctic. This is available in Lidl for £1.49 a jar, while tins of John West Lump Fish Caviar are sold in Tesco and Asda for £2.48.

The only supermarket in which you'll find genuine caviar is in Booths, which has 29 stores in the North West of England, but sells the product in just five branches - at £40 for 30g.

So how have sales been doing? Is there any evidence to suggest Antoin Commane's prediction that caviar will become mainstream is starting to come true?

Not quite yet. Booths' fish buyer Matthew Bruno says they've been stocking it for six months - and it's not exactly flying off the shelves. Sales average just two tins per week.

Back in the basement of the Kensington bar I'm getting a lesson in how to eat the delicacy the Russian way.

I'm served a platter including caviar with chips and scrambled egg, as well as straight from the tin.

They place the caviar onto the back of my hand with a mother of pearl spoon and I'm handed a shot of vodka. I'm told to lick the caviar and then take a shot of vodka as you would a tequila slammer.

The eggs are about the size and colour of peppercorns, with a salty, almost nutty taste.

The texture is more memorable than the taste, and while caviar can cost the same as a burger, if you're hungry go for the latter.

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