Beluga sturgeon and the secrets of your Christmas caviar

Another Life: Michael Viney on the unpalatable truth about lumpfish roe

World’s largest freshwater fish: left alone to grow for a century or more, sturgeon can near the bulk of the ocean’s basking shark. Illustration: Michael Viney

World’s largest freshwater fish: left alone to grow for a century or more, sturgeon can near the bulk of the ocean’s basking shark. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

Losing my sense of taste for a time a while ago, I invited our metropolitan daughter to bring me Christmas goodies that might, in passing, shock a numbed palate to respond.

Exotic savouries, pastes and unguents assembled from Dublin delis (establishments smelling deliciously, I remembered, of salamis and pungent cheeses) had chilli as a constant ingredient, from merely piquant to head-blowing on the Scoville scale of heat.

My taste later restored (perhaps all on its own) and the chilli toned down, the Christmas deli hamper became a family tradition. Among its salty pleasures has been a regular jar of lumpfish caviar, the modest gourmet’s echo of oligarch party fare.

Lumpfish – more properly lumpsucker fish, Cyclopterus lumpus, common around the coasts of these islands – has pelvic fins that shape into a sucker and bony plates on its sides. Baby fish, somewhat toad-shaped, are now, it seems, widely regarded as “cute” and kept as pets in aquariums.

Lumpfish eggs are taken ashore in barrels to be desalted and salted again to market taste, pasteurised and dyed red or black, with EU-approved preservatives

They have found a new, better use as cleaner fish in salmon farms, plucking off the parasitic sea lice as perfectly palatable copepods. Millions of them are now employed globally, sometimes replacing the wrasse rockfish first selected for the job. A lumpsucker farm in Shetland, for example, supplies lumpsucker cleaner fish raised from eggs supplied from a caviar factory in Iceland.

An adult female lumpsucker can reach 60cm. Coming inshore to spawn, she sticks herself firmly to a rock, impervious to Atlantic swells and storms. She lays a large mass of eggs – up to 136,000 – and then retires to deeper water, leaving the male to look after them for weeks.

The more I learn about lumpfish caviar the more I’m now inclined to forgo this Christmas morsel (best washed down, I’m told, with vodka). Female fish caught with inshore gill nets, notably along coasts of Greenland and Iceland, are gutted for their roe, then discarded overboard. The eggs are taken ashore in barrels to be desalted and salted again to market taste, pasteurised and dyed red or black, with EU-approved preservatives.

How, after all, did I think ersatz “caviar” was produced at prices a fraction of the real stuff from wild sturgeon of the Caspian Sea? Beluga caviar retails at up to €10,000 a kilo; in a current Dublin comparison, 100g of lumpfish caviar costs €5.45 and 30g of beluga €289.80.

The latter’s glistening black pearls, popped between one’s teeth, are said to taste delicately of “walnuts and cream” rather than something exquisitely, differently fishy, which is what one might have hoped.

Sturgeon are an ancient family of 24 species, armoured with rows of bony plates. Barbels beneath a pike-like snout feel around for food on the bed of sea or river. Left alone to grow for a century or more they can become the largest freshwater fish in the world, nearing the bulk of the ocean’s basking shark.

But they have rarely been left alone. When the USSR broke up, its management networks collapsed and fishermen in the Caspian Sea’s coastal states (Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) embraced free enterprise as fast as they could set their gill nets. By 1997 illegal trade and unsustainable harvesting had prompted a tangle of international controls.

Land-based caviar farming has grown intensively since the 1980s. The biggest caviar factory in the world  opened last year in Abu Dhabi, part of the UAE’s diversification from oil

Fewer than 100 beluga a year are now taken legally from the Caspian and shared between Russia and Iran, on the sea’s southern shore. Other small wild stocks survive precariously in Europe, and species of Siberian sturgeon have been introduced in some big lakes and rivers.

But land-based farming for caviar has grown intensively since the 1980s, ranging from the United States to China. The biggest caviar factory in the world was opened last year in Abu Dhabi, as part of the UAE’s diversification from oil.

Setting up a caviar farm is costly, as captive female sturgeon can take years to start producing eggs. Traditionally, wild fish have been slaughtered for them, like the lumpfish, and their veal-like meat readily marketed. Aquaculture has brought more refined and repeated harvesting of eggs from the same living fish, by varying methods of delivery.

Ireland once had wild sturgeon, like the stuffed one on display in the Natural History Museum in Dublin, caught in 1890. As one of Ireland’s “lost species” it appears in Whittled Away, the recent book from the wildlife conservationist Pádraic Fogarty. As he relates, the European sturgeon, Acipenser sturio, was possibly “commonplace” up to the 18th century and breeding in Irish estuaries.

The most thorough historic research, by Dr Declan Quigley of Dingle, found confusion between the European sturgeon and migrant Atlantic sturgeon from North America. Tracing 243 Irish newspaper reports of sturgeon since 1738, he concludes that landing one (often from salmon nets) was a relatively rare and newsworthy event. The last sturgeon, weighing 105kg, and captured in 1987, off the Kish Bank Lighthouse, was sold wholesale at €112 a kilo.

Dr Quigley’s detailed research, originally published in Sherkin Comment, can be downloaded by googling “researchgate declan quigley sturgeon”.

Michael Viney’s Reflections on Another Life, a selection of columns from the past four decades, is available from irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks; viney@anu.ie

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