In the Alps, white caviar offers an exclusive alternative

GRÖDIG, AUSTRIA (AFP) – In his waders, Stefan Astner checks on the albino sturgeon: Almost two decades after they hatched, they are ready to be gutted for their caviar to be shipped out for New Year’s celebrations.

“The fish have already been through the ultrasound so we saw that they are full (of roe) and they will go into production soon,” Astner said, dipping his net into a small pond teeming with the rare, white sturgeon.

Deemed the most expensive food in the world, demand for caviar – essentially, salted roe – has driven most sturgeon species to the brink of extinction in the wild.

But fish farms like the one where Astner works in the village of Groedig, near the Austrian city of Salzburg, offer a more sustainable alternative.

Owner Walter Gruell is one of about 2,500 sturgeon farmers worldwide that produce a combined 415 tonnes of caviar a year, according to the World Sturgeon Conservation Society’s most recent figures dating from 2018.

But patience is imperative for producers.

The required investment is high and does not pay off for years until the sturgeon begin carrying roe – that is if they are not stolen by gangs hoping to skip the arduous breeding process.

Walter Gruell packs a box with freshly extracted caviar. PHOTOS: AFP
ABOVE & BELOW: Fish farmer Stefan Astner inspects an extremely rare 16-year-old albino female sturgeon; and albino female sturgeons

The albino female that Gruell slices with surgical precision is 16-years-old.

Slowly, he removes, rinses, and weighs the cream-coloured roe, which, like the fish,
lacks pigmentation.

There are no more than 40 sturgeon breeders specialising in albinos worldwide, according to Thomas Friedrich, an expert on sturgeon at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna.

Though there is no research suggesting that lack of pigmentation affects caviar’s taste, Gruell is convinced of its superiority, asserting that “it us even sweeter, even smoother than the traditionally black one”.

Consumers are willing to pay for the difference.

The female that Gruell just cut yields 600 grammes worth EUR8,000 – over three times the price that black caviar fetches.

STURGEON RUSTLERS

The coronavirus pandemic curbed demand as upscale restaurants, like all eateries in Austria, have been closed, but retail is booming, partly because people still want to treat themselves, Gruell believes.

“People want to savour the present moment,” he said, between the many phone calls ahead of the end-of-year celebrations, when he makes close to 40 per cent of his annual turnover.

While AFP visited his farm, Gruell spoke to a luxury automaker, and shortly before had been in contact with an airline hoping to serve first-class travellers caviar “Made in Austria”.

Demand for caviar remains high, and not just from paying customers, but sturgeon rustlers, too.

A year ago, 400 kilogrammes of sturgeon were stolen from a farm less than two hours away from Groedig.

The eviscerated fish were later found in a reservoir.

A year before that, 400 individual sturgeon worth EUR50,000 were stolen from
another farm.

At Gruell’s farm, the fish, which include sturgeon native to the Danube, are protected by surveillance cameras and high fences with heavy padlocks.

Though sturgeon breeding in countries like China, Italy and France started as a purely financial venture, it is now also seen as a sustainable alternative to wild sturgeon.

OUTLIVING DINOSAURS

Having survived the demise of the dinosaurs, some sturgeon species have recently gone extinct, while others are on the brink.

In Russia and Iran, production of wild caviar collapsed in the 1980s due to overfishing as well as pollution in the Caspian Sea.

Most countries along the Danube now protect the local sturgeon species, though experts worry that conservation might have cometoo late.

Official government data in Romania, where the Danube empties into the Black Sea, show that catches of Russian sturgeon plummeted from 3,725 kilogrammes in 2002 to just 37 kilogrammess in 2005, indicating that overfishing gravely diminished their numbers.

Though the country issued a moratorium in 2006, impoverished fishermen continue to try and catch the fish, as the dozens of kilogrammes of roe that one sturgeon can carry are worth as much as a fisherman’s annual income.

Some fans of the delicacy still believe the taste of wild caviar eclipses that extracted from farmed sturgeon – though Gruell said his albinos are in a taste category of their own.