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Thu 26 Oct 2006 04:00 AM

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Chefs' black gold

Known to chefs as black gold, the high price of caviar is not just reflected in its retail value but also in the depleting stocks, which is forcing the international community to put more stringent controls in place

|~|caviar2.jpg|~|Chef Jean Paul Naquin offers guests at the Burj Al Arab a range of caviar varieties|~|Offering diners high-end goods comes at a price, none more so than caviar. Known as black gold among chefs, caviar is one of the few food items that while still popular among diners, is gradually becoming extinct.

With stocks decreasing at an alarming rate governments are controlling the fishing of sturgeon, limiting its availability, which has ultimately lead to a rise in prices. Caviar from the Caspian and Black Sea for example, accounts for approximately 95% of the international trade, with Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan the dominating produce of the black gold.

“The best caviar in the world comes from the Caspian Sea, particularly Iran. The Iranian government now controls who sells its caviar, and there are only 10 companies worldwide that have been approved to deport and sell its caviar,” says Jean Paul Naquin, executive chef, Burj Al Arab.

Sourced from the stomach of a sturgeon, a single female can produce millions of eggs, however, since 1998 all 27 sturgeon species have been listed as endangered species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Despite this listing by CITES, last year there was an estimated 12,000kg of illegal caviar seized by European authorities, most of which originated from Iran and Russia. At the beginning of this year, CITES also rejected 2006 caviar exports from Caspian Sea states, leading to a temporary ban.

“Each region is designated a certain amount of caviar every year, so once it has gone, it has gone, we cannot get hold of any more,” comments Dirk Holscher, executive chef, Park Hyatt Dubai.

Although the ban has now been lifted, the knock on effect is that suppliers in the region have had to increase prices, making them more in line with the European market. In response to this price increase, chefs in the region have also noticed that although caviar is still popular among certain clients, the demand has decreased slightly due to the price.

“Caviar is known as black gold; it is very expensive. However, it is the same for watches and cars, if you are willing to pay the money you get the best,” comments chef Dirk.

Available from a variety of sturgeon, the three main species are beluga, ossetra and sevruga. Although the price varies according to availability, wholesale prices of beluga can cost approximately AED9000-AED10,000 (US $2450-$2720) per 1kg, with sevruga costing less, at around AED139 ($38) per 30g.

“Prices vary depending upon the catch, the season and of course, market demand. The poaching and over fishing of sturgeon over recent years though, has increased prices dramatically, which was seen at the beginning of the year,” comments Carlos Abaro, operations manager, Caviar Classic.

Importing around 200-300kg per week, Caviar Classic has been in operation since 1992, supplying caviar to the Jumeirah Group, as well as operating a number of outlets across Dubai, including a seafood bar at Dubai airport.||**|||~||~||~|“We have a factory in Al Quoz but we cannot store a lot of caviar. Not only because of the availability, but also because the best grade of caviar has no additives, so it will only last around three months,” he adds.

Dealing directly with fisherman in Azerbaijan, rather than through sturgeon farms, Caviar Classic supplies caviar in 30g, 50g, 150g and 250g tins, as well as 500g and 1kg packages.

Using around 500g a week, Park Hyatt sources its caviar from Black Pearl Caviar company. The sole distributor and agent for Iranian caviar in the GCC, Black Pearl Caviar works alongside the Iranian fisheries company, Shilat, who are the exclusive producer and exporter of Iranian caviar.

Offering two caviar dishes using either ossetra or royal beluga, the Park Hyatt offers caviar by the spoon; a 2-3g serving, it is served with croutons and a lemon.
The hotel also serves caviar in a traditional Russian format. Sold as a 50g serving, the AED1650 ($450) dish is accompanied with a range of condiments, including lemons, shallots, egg whites and egg yellows.

“We do not use caviar as a garnish but as a dish in itself. Adding a few eggs to a main dish like salmon tartar does not add anything, expect cost, therefore making the dish more expensive,” comments chef Dirk.

Chef Jean Paul also believes that serving caviar on its own is the best way for it to be served, suggesting that a mother of pearl or ivory spoon is best— as a silver spoon reacts with the salt in the caviar.

“Traditional condiments can be used alongside caviar, but in terms of beverage, a glass of Champagne is the best choice. You can even serve it with a Champagne jelly, that would work well,” advises chef Jean Paul.

Selling its own range of caviar in the Burj Al Arab, chef Jean Paul says that the 30g tins range in price from AED1000 ($272) for the sevruga and ossetra caviar, to AED1100 ($300) for the golden ossetra and AED2100 ($572) for the beluga. Although the autumn usually brings a better catch due to cooler waters, once the sturgeon is caught and the caviar removed, the eggs are then poured through a fine sieve before salt is added to help preserve the caviar.

Using more than 50 fisheries in Iran to source its caviar, the Burj Al Arab employs somebody to work alongside Shilat, and although able to offer guests ossetra, beluga and sevruga, sourcing caviar from the albino sturgeon, also known as almas, is rare, and generally trades at around $38,000.

“For the top hotels caviar is an item that you need to have on your menu. And like truffles, it should not be paired with strong or overwhelming flavours,” comments chef Jean Paul.

“It is fantastic to work with such a noble product, but it is important to understand the production process and how it is sourced,” he adds.||**||

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