British caviar comes on stream

30 Jul 2014
Sturgeon meat and caviar

Sturgeon meat and caviar

Caviar from sturgeon farmed in Devon in the south west of England, will be produced again in the autumn.

This will be only the second production season, as the company behind the operation, Exmoor Caviar, was set up less than four years ago and was officially registered in November 2012.

Unlike almost all fish processing in the developed world, the method used for producing caviar – the unfertilized eggs of female sturgeon which are treated (cured) with salt – hasn’t changed during the past 100 years.

Different methods are used for extracting the eggs, from the straightforward killing of the fish, to extracting the eggs surgically while leaving the fish alive, and a process called ‘stripping’ which sources say involves making a small incision along the urogenital muscle when the fish is deemed ready to be processed.

Exmoor Caviar kills its fish humanely and uses as much of the sturgeon for human consumption as possible. For example sturgeon fillets are smoked by Pinneys of Orford on the Suffolk coast.

Once the ovaries have been extracted, the eggs are passed over a sieve of plastic mesh to remove the roesack and fatty membrane then washed in cold water. Any remaining fragments of fatty tissue are painstakingly removed using tweezers.

Sea salt
The eggs are then treated with Cornish or Hebridean sea salt and chilled for up to three weeks at minus 1 degree C before the caviar is shipped to London packed in 1.1kg or 1.8kg tins. There it is repacked to order in vacuum tins.

“The Cornish salt is a very wet salt and makes for quite a soft egg,” says Exmoor Caviar CEO Kenneth Benning. “The Hebridean salt is drier, so makes for a more robust taste.”

Each 10kg sturgeon produces about 1kg of caviar. “We process eight to 10 fish per day, which is not a massive amount compared with other producers,” says Patrick Noble, company chairman.

It is a very valuable product though: 250g of Exmoor caviar costs just under £500, although established brands of imported caviar are more, often much more, expensive.

Exmoor Caviar is currently producing caviar from Siberian sturgeon (Acipenser baerii), although there are other sturgeon species at the farm, where 20,000-30,000 fish are stocked in giant freshwater tanks. These include sterlet, beluga, Russian (oscietra) and sevruga.

It takes 8-10 years for the females to become mature and produce the eggs which form the caviar. Last season the company produced about 0.5 ton of caviar which was sold to restaurants and online, although the well known retailer, Selfridges of London, is now stocking it.

This coming season Exmoor Caviar is aiming to double production and to increase it still further in the future. Says Kenneth Benning: “We plan to target a few key contracts while continuing to supply to restaurants and retailers.”

Exmoor Caviar is the first company to farm sturgeon in the UK to produce caviar. The company was established in 2010 by Kenneth Benning and father and son cold water ornamental fish farmers Patrick and George Noble. Kenneth Benning had experience of importing and selling caviar in the UK, and the Nobles had been farming sturgeon in freshwater tanks in north Devon since 1994.

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