By GILES MACDONOGH. 765 words, 23 December 1995, Financial Times, FTFT, 10, English, (c) 1995 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved
Gastronomes take heed. The sturgeon is getting rarer, and its eggs are in short supply. In a good year the
Iranians used to can up to 300 tonnes of caviar a year. Last year they sold 200 tonnes, this year 120.
Ironically perhaps, the replacement of the Soviet Union with newly created market economies is beginning to
deprive the world’s plutocrats of their favourite nibbles.
The suggestion is that the Russians are scoffing it all themselves: that stinking-rich 1% which has now
emerged from the ruins of Marxist-Leninism.
In the past poor Ivan was left with the dross. Good caviar was shipped abroad for foreign currency. Now any
Russian with any nous goes down to the Black Sea or the Sea of Azov and buys a fish for a fistful of dollars.
The shortage means that even the Poles, who used to offer tins of caviar to restaurateurs or punters on
British race-tracks, have gone back into the woodwork. And the black market German trade went flat when
the Russian army left last year.
I learned all this from Laura Morris, of Whites, which has been trading in Russian caviar for 100 years.
Dealing with tsars or the satraps of the Soviet state was a cinch compared to the wide-boys of today’s trade.
The company used to get by with what it got from the Russians, but now 90% of its supplies come from
oversubscribed stocks in Iran.
Russians still process caviar in Astrakhan, but there are new brooms in Gur’yev in Kazakhstan and Baku in
Azerbaijan. The Iranian source is still the best.
Baku is the wild east, where nothing can be obtained without greasing the appropriate palms. Traders live in
fear of their lives. Recently the number two in the Russian state company was shot.
It is not enough just to buy caviar. It needs to be good. A few years ago, in the old Soviet days, Whites were
cheated out of thousands of pounds when the tins they had bought turned out to be filled with lard. In general,
however, the old regime traded honourably. Baku caviar, spilling out through Dubai at a rate of 1.5 tonnes a
week, seems good enough, but it is not clear where it comes from.
Morris’s job has become increasingly difficult. There is good Oscietra to be had from the Amur River which
separates Siberia from Mongolia, but the processing plants need to be carefully examined, and that requires
travelling to increasingly dangerous lands.
In the Gironde Estuary in France, three farms offer up to 100 kilos a year. Unlike the Russians and the
Iranians the French perform caesareans on the fish and put them back in the water.
A while back there were scare stories circulating about poor hygiene standards in the Russian fisheries. Much
of this was to do with certain companies wanting to promote Iranian caviar as being superior to Russian.
According to Morris, pollution in the Caspian is not so great, nor is the issue so simple. The Iranians catch
their fish on the open seas, before they are ready to spawn. This means that the egg is firmer than the Russian, which is caught in estuaries, where the fish has gone to give birth. Which sort you chose in the past
was a matter of taste.
Now, with caviar in such short supply the old rivalry has been largely forgotten.
Over-fishing is another problem. Fishermen are now taking the sturgeon too young. Morris opened some tins.
The Beluga was a lustrous black, rather than the usual gun-metal grey, the colour of Sevruga. This was a
young fish, she said. As the animal matures the eggs get lighter in colour. This accounts for the so-called
‘golden’ oscietra caviar: it comes from a very old fish.
The environmental factor is not to be discounted, however. The water levels in the Caspian are rising, and the
fish are becoming harder to find. This, together with the alterations to the region’s political map is contriving to
rob us of one of the world’s greatest delicacies. At #95 a 50g portion in Maxim’s in Moscow, Russians will kill