Caviar – the sustainable way

By Franz Scheurer




When we think of caviar we immediately conjure up images of the Caspian Sea, Russia, Iran and the fabulous fish that we owe it all to, the Sturgeon. What few of us know is that between the early 1920s and 1950 up to 5 tonnes of caviar were produced, annually, from wild Sturgeon caught in the region of Aquitaine, in the estuaries of the Gironde near Bordeaux in the South-West of France and similar quantities were harvested from the rivers of North America between 1960 and 1980.


Once abundant in many estuaries of Europe and North America, unfortunately, here, as well as in all other regions of the world where Sturgeon are fished, exploitation (over fishing and rampant poaching) and destruction of habitat (construction of dams, cutting off of spawning grounds and industrial pollution) were responsible for their decline to the brink of extinction.


Sturgeon are one of the world’s oldest species going back 250 million years, having survived the dinosaurs.  Twenty-seven species of Sturgeon are still with us, (correction: since I started writing this article, it seems there are now only twenty-six left!). Instead of scales, five rows of large bony plates or shields (called scutes) cover the Sturgeon's leather-like skin. The scutes provide protection against predators and add to the fish's primitive appearance.  Sturgeon are one of the most ancient groups of bony fishes, a relict from the Mesozoic era. Today’s Sturgeon have a mostly cartilaginous skeletal system, a sharklike tail fin (called heterocercal), which has the upper lobe longer than the lower lobe, and fine horny fin rays. These characteristics are known from fishes present during the Devonian period, which occurred 360-408 million years ago. Sturgeon also have a notocord, the precursor to the bony vertebral column found in most other "advanced" fish species. The bony scutes covering their bodies are remnants of primitive ganoid scales, scales that have an outer enamel layer made up of a distinct substance called ganoine. Sturgeon are native to the northern hemisphere, living in lakes (freshwater Sturgeon) and in slightly salty, brackish water, predominantly in estuaries (sea Sturgeon), but all return, like salmon, to pure fresh water, up-river, for spawning. Sturgeon have changed little since Jurassic times. They are mostly bottom feeders with a toothless, ‘syphon-like’ mouth, at the underside of the head, set back towards the start of the belly, that acts like a vacuum, sucking up crustaceans, worms and other fish (the only exception is the Beluga Sturgeon who’s mouth is positioned at the front of the head and they’re the only active predator amongst the species). Sturgeon are a long-lived species, typically 50 to 60 years. This bony-plated, pre-historic fish not only gave the world caviar but a gelatine from the inner lining of its air-bladder was used to make Isinglass – a clarifying agent for jellies, wine and glues (as used in the early sealers for car windows).




The best-known Sturgeon, the Beluga with its home in the Caspian Sea, is the largest known freshwater fish (the largest one on record weighed in at 2,175kg). The first written record of caviar can be found in the journals of Batu Khan (Ghengis Khan’s grandson) dating back to the 1240s.


Noticing the decline of this valuable resource, the old Soviet Union imposed very strict controls on caviar and learnt how to spawn Sturgeon in the late eighteen hundreds, releasing the fingerlings back into the Caspian Sea. Unfortunately most of the eggs of the mature Sturgeon in the Caspian Sea are now non-fertile due to genetic malformation directly attributable to the high pollution levels.




It took 20 years of research, but in the early 1990s science finally found a way to successfully farm 2 smaller species of Sturgeon: a native of Siberia (acipenser baeri) in France and, in America, the native white Sturgeon (acipenser transmontanus). Farming enables complete control over the fish’s lifecycle and harvesting of the roe at the optimal time, guaranteeing a consistent quality and, best of all, without endangering the already depleted wild Sturgeon population. The ‘acipenser baeri’ is particularly suited as, to my understanding, it is the only species of Sturgeon capable of feeding on food in suspension, whereas all other Sturgeon are bottom feeders. Farming Sturgeon for caviar is a risky and expensive business demanding lots of patience as it takes 2 years before the young fish’s gender can be determined (using ultra-sound) and after separating the males from the females (the males for meat and the females for caviar) it takes a further 6 years for the female to carry her first set of eggs.





Sturia caviar is preserved in dry salt to EU standards (at ‘Molossol’ salt levels). It is unique due to its distinctive flavour from the terroir where the fish are bred: the estuaries of the Gironde in France. Ranging in colour from charcoal grey to golden nut brown this is a first class, large-grained product (comparable to Oscietra) with great texture, a fresh salt-sea taste and a nutty finish.


Sturia website:





Born on the Iranian side of the Caspian Sea and raised on the Russian side, two Armenian brothers, Melkoum and Moucheg Petrossian emigrated to France in the 1920s (known as ‘Les années folles’ in France and as ‘The Roaring Twenties’ in the USA). At that time Paris welcomed exiled Russian princes, intellectuals and aristocrats with open arms and the Parisians quickly embraced all things ‘Russian’, especially the arts, ballet, the choreography of Diaghilev and the music of Igor Stravinsky, the only thing that was missing: Caviar. Thanks to Cesar Ritz an awareness was created which quickly became a new French obsession. The Petrossians were the first ones to import caviar into France and now, more than 80 years later, they are one of the most venerable and quality-conscious caviar houses in the world. Although they still offer a range of imported Russian and Iranian caviars, they also encourage, and are financially involved in, Sturgeon farming, both in California and France. The two farmed products they offer in Australia are:


Petrossian Royal Transmontanus Caviar, from California-farmed white Sturgeon, similar in roe-size and texture to Oscietra, with a nutty, clean, salty sea taste and an almost fruity finish.


Petrossian French Baeri Caviar, farmed in France from Siberian Sturgeon, producing an intensely flavoured, small, glistening roe comparable to Sevruga.


Petrossian website:



For more information on Sturia and Petrossian and orders contact:

GJ Food - The Fine Food Connection

Unit 13

5-13 Parsons Street

Rozelle NSW 2039

02 9555 7750





Stolt Seafarm California has been in the business of farming white, and baeri, Sturgeon for over 15 years on their 3 separate farm sites around Sacramento County. Each site employs different technologies under the watchful eyes of a gaggle of marine biologists. The fish are grown in aboveground tanks, not in earthen ponds (as catfish are) or canal raceways (as trout are). Sterling produces Classic caviar (from white and baeri Sturgeon, similar to Oscietra), Royal caviar (mature white Sturgeon, larger grain) and Imperial caviar (the best product from the best fish only; rare and often unavailable) as well as a comprehensive range of smoked Sturgeon products.


For more information on Sterling caviar and orders contact:

Simon Johnson Purveyor of Quality Food

Pyrmont: 02 9552 2522

Woollahra: 02 9328 6888

Castle Crag: 02 9967 9411

Fitzroy; 03 9486 9456

Toorak 03 9826 2588

Subiaco: 08 9388 7780




We organised a blind tasting of the farmed caviars available in Australia; here are the results:


Blind Farmed Caviar Tasting and Evaluation


The following caviars were tasted blind:

1. Petrossian French Baeri Caviar RRP $194 / 50g

2. Sterling Royal Caviar RRP $154 /50g

3. Petrossian Royal Transmontanus Caviar RRP $187 / 50g

4. Sturia French Baeri Caviar RRP $182 / 50g


Judging Panel

(using mother-of-pearl spoons, courtesy of Simon Johnson, Castlecrag):


Franz Scheurer (Australian Gourmet Pages)

Grahame Turk (GM, Sydney Fish Market)

Janni Kyritsis (Chef)

Pat Nourse (Features Editor, Australian Gourmet Traveller)

Roberta Muir (Master of Gastronomy, Sydney Seafood School)


































Score out of 10 maximum points:

2 for consistency of colour, lustre

2 for size

2 for ‘pop’

4 for taste

- 4 for oxidation


Winner: Sturia French Baeri Caviar (35.5 Pts)

Followed by Petrossian Transmontanus (34 Pts), Petrossian Royal Baeri (31 Pts) and Sterling Royal (22 Pts).


Note: The original Iranian tin where a very tight-fitting lid sits over a deep tin, held in place by a rubber band, allowing excess oil to seep out but not letting in any air, works well for large tins. The judging panel however agreed, that although they detected no oxidation in the Sterling product, they are not confident that the rubber band seal on small tins is effective. They preferred the other makes’ packaging.



Other Sturgeon aquaculture projects are established in:

California - Tsar Nicoulai  

Florida - AquaFarms 

Italy – Calvisius

Germany - Caviar Creator

France – Perlita Caviar

Uruguay - Esturiones Del Rio Negro

This is so far the only Sturgeon farm in the southern hemisphere. It was built by Walter H. Alcalde Dayviere in Baygorria, the pristine lake of the Rio Negro Hydroelectric Scheme, with the help of the Russian Government (who identified this pristine and perfect breeding location by using satellite technology). The Russians assist with technical advice and farming techniques and supply personnel and Russian Sturgeon breeding stock (imported from the Lena and Ob rivers in Siberia). Esturiones Del Rio Negro utilises pontoon-floating cages at the edge of the fastest flowing water in depths of up to 10m. Their caviar ranges from black to light brown akin to Oscietra in size, flavour and texture. I don’t believe that this product is imported into Australia at present.




Caviar Glossary:

Beluga: largest eggs, light to dark grey in colour

Oscietra: smaller eggs, firmer and from warm brown to greenish grey in colour

Sevruga: smallest eggs, firm and strongly flavoured, shades of grey to black

Molossol: indicates light salt levels, applicable to all sizes



Traditional caviar tins are sealed with a rubber band. The colour of the rubber band indicates what’s in the tin:

Red = Sevruga

Blue = Beluga

Yellow = Oscietra