"The trouble always is," explains James Bond to his female companion, "not how to get enough caviar, but how to get enough toast with it." That might have been true in 1953, when 007 was getting his first outing in the novel Casino Royale. Today the reverse is true: toast may be plentiful, but caviar, at least the kind Bond ordered for dinner, is in crisis.
The sturgeon has been around for a couple of hundred million years, and over time this fish and its roe—which, when brought into contact with salt, becomes caviar—have caught the attention of everyone from Aristotle to Peter the Great to Ian Fleming. But this year there has been no caviar from the Caspian Sea, at least no legal caviar.
Poaching, pollution, and overfishing have caused once plentiful stocks to dwindle to levels that have caught the attention of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This year the shortage is especially severe, thanks to an administrative cock-up. For CITES to agree to caviar quotas, all the producing countries around the Caspian have to meet, and, according to Peter Rebeiz, CEO of Caviar House & Prunier, the Kazakhstan delegate missed the meeting.
Nevertheless, Rebeiz remains sanguine. That's because he has 160,000 sturgeon sitting in a series of pools in Bordeaux. Any day now, the first of his autumn crop of farmed caviar will be available in stores.
The rising status of farmed caviar is the biggest thing to happen to the international caviar market since 1957, when the Shah of Iran decided that he would make his own rather than sell his country's sturgeon to the Russians. So strong was the image of Russian caviar that "it took about 20 years before Iran got a foothold," says Rebeiz.
Now the process of reeducating the consumer is starting again, with gourmets being told that the farmed stuff is of a consistently higher quality. The absence of any caviar from the Caspian this year has given farmed caviar a clear run.
Few foods are as evocative as caviar. Along with Rolls-Royces, top hats, and champagne, it is an essential accessory of the pantomime plutocrat—shorthand for a life of sybaritic indulgence. There are three basic types: sevruga, made with the smallest eggs; osetra, the middle tier in terms of size and price; and beluga, the king of caviar, shiny anthracite beads that can command prices of more than $16,000 per kilo.
And while there may well be epicures who prize them for their flavor alone, these oily black or golden gray beads are most definitely an acquired taste. But for most of us, part of the thrill is the price; we are feeding our minds and our vanity as much as our bodies. Indeed, the majority of people eating caviar see it as akin to carrying an Hermès handbag. As such, the romance of the product is as important as the flavor. So while farmed caviar may indeed be of higher quality, the notion that it is commercially produced in the EU and conforms to an ISO number, rather than wrested from the quasi-mythical Caspian Sea, is a tough barrier to overcome.
In an effort to see how this obstacle is being tackled, I attended a caviar tasting in a private Mayfair club, arranged by Gunther Corsten-Gerhards, cofounder of the London-based company Princesse d'Isenbourg, which has been importing caviar for the last 20 years. Although Corsten-Gerhards started out distributing Iranian caviar in the U.K., he converted a decade ago to farmed eggs. "We buy from South America, Eastern Europe, from EU countries, and even the United States," he says candidly. Farmed caviar allows for greater variations in flavor and appearance; in a way aquaculture brings caviar closer to wine, with its look and taste affected by geography and genus. Indeed, varieties range from the accessible Guba, which offers a grayish, midsize bead with a smooth and pleasant rather than overpowering taste, to the creamy, turmeric-colored pure gueldenstaedtii.
The youngish, affluent audience listened attentively as Corsten-Gerhards wove the tale of the sturgeon, this living fossil of a fish that can survive for up to two centuries and weigh as much as one metric ton when fully mature. Inevitably, there were skeptics who questioned whether this caviar was as good as the "real" thing from the Caspian. Corsten-Gerhards patiently explained that in blind tastings conducted with chefs and so on, farmed caviar outperforms the wild stuff. Small tasting pots were handed around, followed by the silence that is the greatest mark of approval of any foodstuff.
But what clinched it was the price. Princesse d'Isenbourg could sell these fish eggs well below market price. It seems that keen pricing can help overcome any residual resistance to the farmed variety. This autumn Caviar House is launching an in-store tasting promotion, aimed at converting palates to farmed rather than wild caviar.
For now, with quantities of farmed caviar still relatively small (bear in mind that the biggest sturgeon takes a minimum of 15 years to reach spawning age) and legal wild caviar next to nonexistent, caviar retains its allure, but the past has a warning for today's caviar farmers. It is said that in pre-Prohibition New York, caviar was so abundant that barkeepers gave it away, hoping its saltiness would boost beer sales. Somehow I don't think even James Bond could carry off the line "The trouble always is not how to get enough caviar, but how to get enough beer with it."