QIANDAOHU, CHINA (AFP) – The caviar on the menu of Michelin-starred restaurants may come from an unexpected place: China.
The country has endured embarrassing food scandals in recent years, but its sturgeon eggs have gained the respect of caviar connoisseurs around the world.
It has also become pricier for United States (US) buyers as Chinese caviar is among the slew of products hit with 25 per cent tariffs in the US-China trade war.
The bulk of China’s production comes from a picturesque lake ringed by mountains in eastern Zhejiang province where industry leader Kaluga Queen breeds the giant fish.
The brand was created in 2005 by experts who worked for China’s Ministry of Agriculture and it now produces more than a third of the world’s caviar, making China the global leader.
The company’s sturgeon farm is a 20-minute boat ride away from the shore in Qiandaohu, or Thousands Islands Lake.
Qiao Yuwen, a breeder, stood at the edge of the pools where the animals live until they are between the ages of seven and 15. The biggest sturgeons can grow to be four metres long and weigh 300 kilogrammes.
“They’re like our babies. We see them from when they’re very young, so it’s hard when they are sent to be slaughtered,” Qiao said.
“But there’s also, of course, the satisfaction of having contributed to making an exceptional product,” he said before throwing pellets containing shrimp, peas and vitamins to the fish.
For a long time, Iran and Russia fished sturgeon in the wild in the Caspian Sea.
But the fish population was nearly decimated by overfishing and poaching after the Soviet Union, which had regulated fishing, fell in 1991.
Sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea was banned in 2008 while sturgeon farms have sprung up everywhere, with Italy, France and China among the world leaders in the industry. Kaluga Queen has 300 employees looking after some 200,000 sturgeons.
Once they reach sexual maturity, females are fished out and taken to a laboratory where they are stunned before their bellies are sliced open to extract the black eggs.
The roe is then washed, sorted, salted and placed in boxes.
Kaluga Queen produced 86 tonnes of caviar last year, most of it destined for exports, with half going to the European Union (EU), 20 per cent to the United States (US) and 10 per cent to Russia.
Depending on the species, the price per kilogrammes varies between CNY10,000 and 180,000 (USD1,420 to USD25,600).
Sturgeons producing the most expensive caviar can carry as much as two million yuan worth of eggs.
“It’s the price of a Ferrari,” said the company’s vice president Xia Yongtao.
Kaluga Queen has walked a “long road” to win the trust of customers since the company produced its first jar in 2006, Xia said.
Chinese caviar had to overcome scepticism from foreign clients who were used to headlines about food scandals, from contaminated milk powder to soy sauce containing arsenic and rice tainted with cadmium.
“A few years ago, customers were reluctant when we talked about Chinese caviar,” said Raphael Bouchez, president of Kaviari, a Paris-based supplier to renowned restaurants.
Bouchez convinced customers by explaining how Chinese producers raise fish and use methods that respect the environment.