Black Gold








Black Gold

Carelian Caviar is the first Nordic producer of one of the world’s most expensive foods – and it’s the greenest black gold money can buy.

The virgin eggs of the prehistoric-looking sturgeon fish are renowned as the food of the tsars, and the best eggs traditionally came from wild sturgeon in the Caspian and Black Sea. I’m about to enter the sterile production facility for one of the world’s most expensive ingredients, but I’m not in Russia. I’m in the small industrial town of Varkaus in Finland at Carelian Caviar – the only Nordic producer of caviar, with an innovative recirculating aquaculture farm housing 250 tonnes of sturgeon and one of the most sustainable caviar production facilities in the world.

I’m dressed in a white plasticised paper jumpsuit, a hood, facemask, and rubber surgical gloves, with bright blue plastic slippers over my shoes. While caviar might be the enduring symbol of a rarefied lifestyle of luxury and wealth, I feel more like an extra on Breaking Bad than a part of the One Per Cent. “If you take your camera in, we have to disinfect it,” production manager Pekka Hannelin tells our photographer. It all feels a long way from the world of champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

There are few foods in the world that match the rarified allure of caviar or its association with the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It was Marilyn Monroe’s favourite food, Audrey Hepburn craved it for breakfast and Ernest Hemingway promised it to Marlene Dietrich in exchange for an interview. In the early 17th century, Galileo gifted it to his daughter’s convent, and a century later Peter the Great presented it to King Louis XV of France (who, according to legend, disliked the taste and spat it out on the carpets of Versailles). In Russia, it was the food of the tsars and in Europe, King Edward II decreed that only royalty had taste buds refined enough to appreciate it.

The term “caviar” is often, misleadingly, used to describe any kind of fish roe, from salmon to lumpfish, but true caviar refers only to the roe of the sturgeon. The real thing regularly makes appearances in the world’s most expensive meals – including the world’s most costly burger, a £1,100 (NOK12,000) extravaganza created by Honky Tonk restaurant in London’s swanky Chelsea – and retails from around £140 (NOK1,535) per 100g for Sevruga caviar up to £400 (NOK4,390) per 100g for rare Beluga caviar, and that’s just if you want to eat it. High in Omega-3 oils, caviar has also become the ingredient du jour in luxury skincare. La Prairie charges £300 (NOK3,290) for a 100ml tub of “rare caviar extract” infused face cream (Angelina Jolie is a fan); in Dubai, you can pay £160 (NOK1,755) to get the fish eggs smeared on your face; and Kazakhstan recently announced plans to attract tourists to the Caspian coast with offers of Beluga caviar spa treatments.

The Carelian Caviar production facility, however, is a world away from these luxuries. It’s a laboratory-like space, all gleaming stainless steel, clean white surfaces, and bright strip lighting, where the fish are killed (their meat is sent to another factory, which fillets and distributes the fish to restaurants around Europe), and the eggs are clinically harvested, processed and packaged. During the harvesting season, which runs from September to June, a small team of five processes 50 to 150 fish daily, each of which gives around 1kg of caviar.

It’s also here that the quality control is carried out. All the tasting – or sensory evaluation, as it’s called – is done by Paula Oksman, who is occasionally joined by Hannelin. On a good production day, they eat just over 200g of caviar each – over £400 (NOK4,390) worth. Surprisingly, good caviar shouldn’t taste at all fishy, and before it’s salted to preserve it, it shouldn’t taste like anything at all. “Caviar isn’t really about the taste,” says Hannelin. “It’s about the mouth-feel. You should roll the grains in your mouth and they should gently burst. That’s how you know it’s good caviar. It should never be fishy or muddy.”

Before the sturgeon give up their eggs to the production facility, they are raised in two 8000m2 hanger-like sheds that serve as Carelian Caviar’s fish farm. Here, Siberian sturgeon splash about in the 65 indoor pools, swept around by the constantly recirculating water and reaching their long snouts above the surface in search of food. They’re harvested when they’re between five and seven years old and 8-10kg (in the wild they grow up to 100kg). While sturgeon are one of the world’s most valuable fish, it’s the rare Beluga sturgeon that are the real treasure – their roe sells for £400 per 100g. Carelian Caviar has a pond full of the precious fish, which Hannelin bought 10 years ago from a breeder in Germany. Currently about 60kg, the Beluga will grow to 150kg before their eggs are ready to be harvested. In the wild, they can reach weights of up to two tonnes.

During our visit to the farm, there’s much excitement over a rare albino Siberian sturgeon that is nearing maturity. Jani Rantula, a 2m-tall Nordic giant and manager of the fish farm, holds her up for us to see. Her pale pink skin seems to glow in the dim light. If she’s a true albino, her eggs will be classed as Siberian Almas caviar, pale golden grains worth over £1,650 per 100g. If she holds the golden eggs, her caviar will be valued at around £17,000 (NOK186,400). There’s no way of telling if her eggs are golden until they’re harvested, however, and eventually it’s decided that the roe will be riper if it’s given another 12 months to mature, and the fish is granted impunity until next year.

Caviar has a long history as a food of decadence. Ancient Greek writers, including Aristotle, mention it in their writings, and, later, it was a staple at extravagant Roman parties. From the Middle Ages until the early 19th century, the delicacy was primarily reserved for royalty. Throughout the centuries, the best caviar was Russian caviar, harvested from wild sturgeon found in the Caspian Sea, and the Soviet Union was a fierce protector of the fish. At the dawn of the 19th century, however, sturgeon was discovered in rivers across the US in such abundance that the salty eggs began to be served in American saloons as the equivalent to today’s beer nuts.

By 1900, the US was the biggest producer of caviar in the world, generating over 600 tonnes each year, much of which was imported back into the US deceivingly labeled as the more covetable Russian caviar. By 1906, the American sturgeon population began to dwindle and a ban was placed on commercial sturgeon fishing. Although the North American stock of sturgeon was exhausted, the American taste for caviar was stronger than ever. Importers turned to Russia again, and by the 1960s the sturgeon population in the Caspian began to drop. As availability decreased, prices skyrocketed, as did illegal fishing. For decades, farmers, fishermen and overzealous entrepreneurs, alongside a thriving black-market trade in the post-Soviet Caspian states, plundered the population of wild sturgeon. By the beginning of the 21st century, it seemed as if the halcyon days of Russian caviar were at an end, and most species of sturgeon were at risk of extinction.

It was in this climate, around 2004, that Trygve Eriksson, owner of Eriksson Capital Ab, decided he wanted to invest in a sustainable aquaculture project. The biggest business of the investment company based in Finland’s Åland Islands is the production of sausage casings in Finland, Mexico and Belgium.

“We initially had no idea about producing caviar,” says Carin Holmqvist, the managing director at Carelian Caviar and then-project manager at Eriksson Capital, who was tasked with finding the project. “We did a study tour in 2004 and came across Arvo-Tec, a Finnish company that was developing an innovative recirculation technology to sustainably farm fish inland. A few weeks later, the managing director, Kaj Arvonen, contacted us with a business plan for what has become Carelian Caviar.” At this time, sturgeon farming was in its infancy, and often criticised as having detrimental effects on the environment. With annual global caviar production at an all time low of between 50 and 100 tonnes and prices at an all time high, the timing was perfect for a new, sustainable caviar venture.

Arvo-Tec’s production manager, Pekka Hannelin, who was instrumental in developing the recirculation technology, moved over to Carelian Caviar and began setting up the sturgeon farm – a process not for the impatient. The company was founded in 2005 and the first fish bought in 2006, but the first caviar was not sold until mid-2011 – over six years of investment with no return. “Luckily, the owners are not looking at the quarterly return,” says Hannelin. “They’re more interested in what happens after a decade.”

Today, Carelian Caviar has the capacity to produce up to six tonnes of caviar annually, however at present they produce only 50-60 per cent of this. The rest is either left to mature (the eggs are reabsorbed by the fish until the following season) or repacked and sold onto other caviar houses in Europe and the US, who sell caviar under their own brand but don’t have a production facility. “It’s not easy to sell caviar as the market is so small and specific,” says Holmqvist. “So, it’s a very difficult business to break into.”

Not only are they braving a notoriously difficult industry, but they’re doing it in the most sustainable way possible. The farm and production facilities are located in Varkaus, in the midst of Europe’s largest lake district, on land leased from the neighbouring Stora Enso paper mill, which belches a sulphuric, rotten egg stench into the air. Despite the smell, the mill is key to the environmental credentials of Carelian Caviar. “We use the excess heat from the mill to keep the water in the farm at 18oC, meaning we can produce caviar almost all year round,” says Hannelin. “In return, we treat our waste here and it is dried and burnt to power the mill. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

The recirculation system developed by Arvo-Tec is also a triumph of sustainable aquaculture. The farm is home to over 250 tonnes of sturgeon – primarily the endangered Siberian sturgeon, but also a small school of the critically endangered Beluga sturgeon. They are raised in a controlled indoor environment in which water is cleaned and recirculated into large pools rather than constantly having to be replaced. Not only does this limit the fresh water needed, but it avoids the muddy taste that so often taints caviar harvested from sturgeon farmed in outdoor ponds.

There’s no doubt that Carelian Caviar is producing some of the best caviar in the world – especially the top five per cent of their production, which is classed as “Finest”. In 2010, the very first tins of caviar the company produced accompanied a tasting of the world’s oldest champagne, found in a shipwreck in the Åland archipelago. Today, they produce specially packaged caviar for the Nobu chain in the US and supply the world’s best restaurant – Noma in Copenhagen – as well as top restaurants across the world.

Just 10 years ago, it would have been all too easy to write caviar off as an outdated symbol of luxury; an unsustainable indulgence whose days were numbered. Today, it’s an industry that is forging ahead into new sustainable territory, with Carelian Caviar leading the way. Unfortunately, it’s not getting any cheaper.

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