The secret food of the very rich
Observer Food Monthly – February 15, 2004
Shhh. We are about to be let into the secrets of the very rich. Three dark mounds sit on my plate, glistening moistly: a fat teaspoon each of beluga, osietra and sevruga caviar. These sturgeon eggs, Iran’s finest, are about to be eaten with all the respect that this fantasy food of the wealthy can command. They’re surrounded by heavy linen, sparkling crystal, gleaming silver, obsequious waiters, and an embarrassment of champagne glasses. There is also a discreet dish of blinis, boiled potato slices and sour cream.
We are dining in a private room at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s Oxfordshire restaurant and hotel, where Laurence Mittelbronn, a husky-voiced French luxury foods expert, is teaching 20 aspirational listeners caviar lore. You don’t have to be wealthy to be here, but it helps; the £215-a-head price tag for a 10g taste of caviar, followed by dinner, must deter all but the best-off.
Our crash course in caviar snobbery begins. Mme Mittelbronn tells us we must never, never eat caviar with hard-boiled egg, or chopped onion; offering strong-tasting side dishes was only ever a pre-refrigeration ruse to stop customers realising their caviar had gone off. And we must eat caviar from a horn spoon, or off the back of our hands (on the web of skin between forefinger and thumb); an ordinary silver spoon would only spoil the delicate flavour with its sour metallic taste.
This is the signal to get tasting. Eyes light up and a subdued snuffling begins, as the guests lower their chins towards black bow ties and sparkling décolletage to hoover the first smears of black eggs off their hands. Lips smack. Arms stretch out for more. We start whispering, then talking, then laughing. The champagne keeps flowing. The caviar, and the ostentation, is getting everyone going now; here comes the head-rush, the razzle-dazzle, the hyped-up, showing-off millionaire talk that goes with eating sturgeon eggs.
This is what caviar does: massages the ego, makes you feel like a big shot, and sends you off on a high of hubristic hot air. A few mouthfuls of caviar, and everything suddenly seems possible. The retired farmer’s wife who usually gets her caviar from Harrods confides that she likes beluga, the most expensive kind, best of the three. So does everyone else. Now the life coach (whose tweed jacket appears, when you look closer, to be dusted with gold) is getting frisky, tapping her partner playfully on the wrist with her spoon as they describe Christmases at Le Manoir and other extravagant pleasures. As the last fish egg is wiped off the last plate with a lingering finger, the air thickens with tales of auctions, donations, diamonds the size of hens’ eggs, yachts and private planes.
Are we too busy boasting to try to tell the difference between the caviars? Not altogether. Beluga’s cholesterol-packed eggs are the biggest and oiliest; not fishy, but still tasting, mysteriously, of the sea. The osetra – softer, smaller, brown-tinged – has its own unique and wonderful flavour: a subtle tang of the sea, but something firmer and nuttier too. Only the eggs of the sevruga – much smaller, harder, greyer and cheaper – taste like fish (which, Mme Mittelbronn reassures us, makes them a wonderful accompaniment to vodka).
A lot of this evening is caviar-classic: the luxury, the punters’ extravagant talk and the delectable caviar etiquette stories. Since Russian refugees from the Revolution first brought their local delicacy west, making it fashionable in the salons of Paris and London a century ago, salesmen have been spinning wonderful, if slightly fishy, stories about the stuff. These are full of legends of emperors stuffing caviar down their throats to the sound of trumpets. The point they make is that really important people through the ages have never been able to do without sturgeon eggs.
If our soirée does depart from this tradition in any way, it’s in the kind of caviar served. Even though most people still think of caviar as Russian – going with vodka, snow and unrequited love by moonlight – there is not a scrap of Russian caviar at this table. This is a trend. Whatever venue you go to, from the elegant Caviar Kaspia specialist restaurant in London to the grandest hotel or party, it’s almost always the same: Iranian caviar only.
There’s more than one gourmet reason to choose Iranian, Mme Mittelbronn tells us. First, the Iranian eggs on our plates are younger than the Russian eggs that we are not tasting. Iranians catch their sturgeon at sea, so the eggs are fresher and firmer. Russian sturgeon are caught at the end of their reproductive cycle, when they have left the sea and started swimming upriver to spawn: their eggs are riper, softer and older.
Second, the way sturgeon are fished in Iran is purer. Iranians catch sturgeon from small boats that hold only a few men and fish. They rush the catch straight back to shore to be processed one fish at a time: gutted, the eggs washed free of membranes, a little boric acid added. That means each can of Iranian caviar contains eggs from a single fish. By contrast, Russians in the official caviar-production business fish from huge ‘fishing stations’. These boats stay on the water, processing fish as they’re caught and dumping the roe from each fish into basins marked ‘beluga’ ‘osetra’ and ‘sevruga’. What goes into any Russian caviar can later is a less distinguished blend of fish-egg flavours.
But the real reason for avoiding Russian caviar is the dirtier third one – crime. When the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991, so did its tightly controlled caviar industry on the grey, flat, oily shores of the Caspian Sea. Only the Iranians who fish the southern shores of this inland sea, which gives the world 90 per cent of its caviar, carried on obeying the rules. On the northern shores, what was once one long Soviet coastline suddenly split into four separate, chaotic new states – Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – each full of people with fortunes to make and no Soviet police left to stop them.
So out came the gangsters. Everyone went to sea to help themselves to as many gentle prehistoric fish as they could kill. Brutal, for-profit over-fishing has decimated sturgeon numbers. Wildlife groups say that beluga, the biggest and rarest of the three Caspian sturgeon, is ‘on the brink of extinction’.
I lived in Russia then. So I knew for myself how the stolen caviar that was vanishing from official figures was being sold on the street – celebration food in newly capitalist Russia for anyone beating the odds and getting rich quick. In any Moscow market, caviar was part of a glorious trade in exotica from the south: pomegranates, almonds, walnuts, dewy dark roses, silver-topped Crimean cham pagne, and rich red and orange spices. Street-market caviar was clearly not legit. It was sold in dark corners, in old jars. The salesmen were hissy, alluring traders with sing-song accents, murmuring ‘psst!’ as you passed, winking, their gold teeth glittering. The caviar they sold came without guarantees. Everything about it screamed ‘poached’. But no one minded then. Life in new Russia was too exciting to care.
Buying caviar was an exercise in fast talking, glib or nervous. The traders eyed you from the corner where their little table was set up with pickle jars. Big jars, washed and resealed with greaseproof paper and a rubber band, each containing half a kilo of dark eggs. You couldn’t tell which jar contained osetra or sevruga or beluga. Nor could you tell from the colour or size of the eggs. Sometimes they were as black as dye; sometimes a pearly grey, or brownish, or greenish (a slightly scary palette of colours). Sometimes they were big, sometimes small. ‘What kinds of caviar are these?’ you’d ask in mid-negotiation, pointing at two or three very different-looking jars. ‘All sevruga!’ or ‘All osetra!’ the answer always went.
A shocked voice in your head would be saying, ‘what would that cost in the West?’ and ‘it’s stolen, you know it’s stolen’. But it tasted good. And another voice would say ‘good for them!’ as you looked at the traders, and remembered the taste, and were drawn towards their mischievous smiles. So you’d stride past, looking busy and purposeful, but also slyly checking them out from the corner of your eye. Then you’d turn back slowly, casually, pretending you probably had something better to do. ‘Is it good, is it fresh?’ you’d say threateningly. And ‘the price must be right’. And ‘no rip-offs’.
‘Kss,’ they’d hiss happily. ‘Fresh as mountain dew. Expertly prepared. Mmm. You wanna try some?’ They’d scoop an egg or two off the top layer of a jar for you to taste. The trick, everyone said, was to take a spoon for yourself and delve deep into the jar. You needed to check whether there was a layer of sand, or earth, or pebbles in the middle. Canny buyers pre-empted the salesmen, snatching a spoon and plunging it in to make sure they were getting only caviar. Sometimes there was an undignified scuffle as vendor and purchaser each tried to conduct the sale according to their own rules. You had to haggle to get a good price. But it was worth it. In the end you’d pay less than a hundred dollars for enough caviar to feel sick on for days.
It takes your breath away to see how fast the official post-Soviet catch declined under the pressure of all that theft. It was 15,000 tonnes in 1990, 11,500 in 1991, 10,000 in 1992, 5,500 in 1994 and just 650 tonnes by 2001. Experts believe that, by the mid-1990s, poachers were grabbing 90 per cent of the catch. No wonder respectable diners today prefer Iranian caviar. In most parts of the rich world, the twenty-first-century orthodoxy is that, even if you want to behave like a gangster while eating caviar – waving your arms around, drinking too much champagne and boasting wildly about your own successes – you should only do so while eating Iranian eggs. They do things decently there.
Part of the reason we feel so confident that Iran’s caviar business is clean is the knowledge that Iranians live under a tough theocratic government that does not tolerate disobedience. Who would be fool enough to poach from the ayatollahs?
Another reason to trust that Iranian caviar will be honestly harvested is that most Iranians don’t eat caviar themselves – so there is not much of a local black market. (In post-Soviet states, by contrast, most stolen caviar is consumed in the country of origin.) Devout Muslims never ate this prehistoric creature, which was thought too primitive to have developed the scales the Koran says edible fish must be covered in. The ayatollahs briefly banned the caviar business. But it was so profitable that it was a relief when Iranian scientists re-examined sturgeon skin and found that, after all, it was covered in microscopic scales. So the roe could be eaten. Business resumed. Yet, today, only the most Westernised Iranians like caviar. Only a dozen shops sell it.
Photographer and environmentalist Jason Taylor visited the shores of the Caspian last year and stayed at the state-run Shilat complex in Anzali. At first the fishermen were wary – they didn’t want him to see them catch fish and showed him only special empty ‘tourist’ nets. They pretended for as long as they could that they had no freezer room.
When they eventually relented, Taylor was impressed by the cleanliness and efficiency of the Iranian caviar-making process, starting with the fish going straight from boat to plant. ‘Inside the processing plant was like walking into hospital – I was robed up and entered the sterile environment as the fish was washed, opened and had its caviar removed.’ In the freezer room , at a temperature of -35 C, Jason saw his first deep-frozen beluga, ‘about three metres long and looking like a Hollywood prop’.
On a trip to the International Sturgeon Research Institute, 20 km away, scientists told him about their attempts to conserve sturgeon numbers. Every year, the Iranians release up to 30 million fingerlings – baby fish – into the Caspian for restocking. And they are experimenting with cross-breeding, hoping to create a hybrid fish for farming. Fishy tales and wariness apart, everything suggests that modern Iran is running its caviar business as well as possible – certainly more so than the smuggler-infested, polluted, crime-ridden post-Soviet republics.
But the new Western preference for Iranian caviar is salt in old Russian wounds. Russian experts think their Iranian competitors are beginners being unfairly favoured by the outside world. Russians have been harvesting caviar for centuries (it was Lenten food in the time of Ivan the Terrible), but the Iranians have only a few decades of experience. It was Russians who first built up a caviar industry on Iranian shores. In 1893 a fishing concession was granted to a Russian family concern called Lianozov. They established plants for sturgeon and caviar, equipped with Russian machinery; the caviar was all shipped off to be eaten in Russia too. The Lianozovs went bankrupt in the Russian Revolution of 1917, but the Bolsheviks took over. Gradually, Iranians were allowed into the caviar industry – though almost all the caviar still went to Soviet Russia. In 1952, the Iranians stopped renewing the Russian concession, and took control of their own production.
Russians can’t shake off their sense of superiority. When the UN Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) briefly banned all fishing for Russian, Azeri, Kazakh and Turkmen caviar in 2001, to force the four former Soviet countries to cooperate to save the sturgeon, the boss of Russia’s Caspian Fish eries Research Institute in Astrakhan (Russia’s caviar capital) was furious that the Iranians had got off scot free. ‘It’s not fair to ban fishing here but not in Iran,’ fumed Vladimir Ivanov. ‘And it’s particularly irritating to see that Iran can export four tonnes of beluga caviar – since today virtually all beluga are born in Russian hatcheries. They’re very difficult to breed, and the Iranians don’t know how. (So many tall stories are told about the making and selling of caviar that it is hard to be sure which are really true. There’s an argument that even CITES, the group that most wants to protect the sturgeon, is damaging it. The organisation lifted the fishing ban on post-Soviet countries in early 2002. It has since accepted Russian figures suggesting that sturgeon numbers are now rising, and raised fishing quotas. But US wildlife watchdog groups say CITES has got the sums wrong, and that sturgeon numbers are still going down, not up. According to one group, Caviar Emptor, the new, higher fishing quotas might destroy the last stocks.)
What we know for sure is that, like the Iranians, Russian scientists are doing their best to save the sturgeon. Russian hatcheries are back at work restocking the sea. There are seven hatcheries around Astrakhan; each releases two million fingerlings a year. Like the Iranians, Russian and other post-Soviet scientists boast of finding new ways to harvest caviar safely. Russian scientists have pioneered a sturgeon ‘caesarean section’, in which a fish is sewn up after its eggs are removed, and sometimes lives to breed again. Kaza khstan is testing a drug that makes sturgeon expel their eggs without an operation – though the eggs are not of caviar quality.
The problem is that the admirable work of the Russian good guys can only go so far if the Russian bad guys – the poachers and the crooked enforcers who fail to catch them – are still getting 90 per cent of the catch.
Overall, it’s clear to any outsider that the Iranians are getting more right more of the time in running a sustainable caviar-producing business in the worst of environments. But it’s too easy for consumers to think that this makes all Iranian caviar OK. It just means that all the caviar villains want to counterfeit the Iranian jars.
I spent a day in southern Russia once with a caviar crook. Umar was a jolly man of about 40, who walked with a limp. In Soviet days, he’d been an engineer. When the factory shut down, he turned to crime: canning stolen caviar fished by almost everyone else in a Caspian village called Fishtown. He’d take orders by phone – he didn’t know or care who his clients were – and deliver 50kg of caviar, packaged however the client wanted, a few days later. Off the vine-strewn courtyard where he played chess, his small workshop contained a solid metal date-stamp; a machine that looked like a cappuccino-maker, but with more levers, which he used to seal metal lids on to Russian glass caviar containers, and boxes of the Russian glass jars. Umar, who’d got ahead of the pack once, was doing it again. He also had boxes of tall silver cans, marked ‘Iranian caviar’. Once those tins were filled and sold on, with their authentic-looking date stamps, who’d know that they came from his smuggler’s den?
I know of shops in London that have been raided for stocking illegal caviar canned as Iranian. I know of others where suspiciously cheap jars of Iranian caviar can still sometimes be bought. How many purveyors of not-quite-legit caviar must there be getting a better market, and price, for their produce by labelling it ‘Iranian’?
Anyone with an environmental conscience should not eat caviar unless he believes what is written on the label. That means trusting the vendor, and understanding where his supplies are from. If the price is too good to be true, there’s something wrong.
Yet that is too hard for most caviar eaters. Looking at the flushed, lit-up faces of my fellow diners at the Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, I know two things. One is that our caviar has been impeccable. The second is that caviar feels addictive. Anyone who’s learnt to love its power rush – the dangerous sense that everything is possible – won’t bother asking too many awkward questions next time. As Adam and Eve found out, once you’ve tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge there’s no going back.