Our answer to the world’s most luxurious ingredient – homegrown caviar.
An Australian appetite for the good things in life has seen the rise of home- grown caviar. It’s a unique, accessible yet luxurious ingredient worth opening the champagne for, writes DAN STOCK
Paul Wilson at Melbourne’s Wilson + Market serves it with cultured vodka cream and crepes. Richard Ousby scatters it on oysters at Brisbane’s Stokehouse Q, Dan Hunter at Brae marinates it in sake, while Matt Moran serves it with filo-baked ocean trout at North Bondi Fish. “It” is Australia’s answer to the world’s most luxurious ingredient – a new breed of caviar.
The story of caviar is entwined with Russian tsars and black market smuggling, and the official and original caviar is extracted from the dinosaur-like sturgeon fish. Though the fish was once common in the waters of the Caspian Sea, it’s a slow-growing species and overfishing (for its meat as much as its eggs) as well as pollution have drastically reduced numbers.
Modern appetites have spawned the rise of farmed sturgeon, being produced with great success, particularly in China, the US, Italy, France and Germany, and most international fine-dining restaurants are now using the sustainably farmed eggs.
Australia has responded with its own unique offerings that are both sumptuous and accessible. The best known is salmon caviar.
Arguably the finest stuff comes from a farm at the base of Victoria’s Rubicon River. Yarra Valley Caviar is a product of vision and business survival. In the mid-1990s, the farm was growing salmon for its flesh. But extreme temperatures (hot summers, cold winters) meant the size of the fish couldn’t compete with the burgeoning Tasmanian industry, and so the firm was floundering.
General manager Mark Fox joined the team in 1997 – a time when there was very little caviar sold in Australia – with a vision of harvesting the salmon roe. And not only that, it was to be done humanely, naturally and sustainably.
“People here thought I was a strange dinosaur. I’m from Tassie, and I spent time in Scotland where they were (harvesting the roe) by hand. But here they thought I wanted to take the farm back 20 years with no chemicals, or antibiotics or machinery,” he says.
Now there are more than 25,000 fish at the farm producing around 15 tonnes of caviar a year. Yarra Valley Caviar can’t keep up with demand from around the country and increasingly abroad. A team of 10 people catch and milk up to 1000 fish a day during the three-week harvesting season each May.
In Tasmania, Huon Salmon, which produces “a few tonnes” of both oceangrown and freshwater salmon caviar each year, uses a similar method to Yarra Valley Caviar, sedating fish with a natural clove oil and water solution.
Huon also uses ultrasound to ensure that it’s a perfect time to harvest, says co-founder Frances Bender. “When the eggs are out, we lay the fish in fresh water and they wake up and live on. Some of the fish are nine years old.”
This sustainable, ethical approach has won fans and medals for Yarra Valley – including a swag of delicious. Produce Awards – with chefs heralding both the product and the process.
In Sydney, executive chef at Quay, Peter Gilmore, uses Australian caviar as a textured and luxurious topping to several of his dishes. To start, an amusebouche of lemon jam, creme fraiche, and toasted multigrains is topped with golden pearls of Yarra Valley trout caviar. “It’s a small egg and I like the gold colour instead of the full-on red. They’re texturally beautiful, and the freshness of the Australian product is excellent,” Gilmore says.
The chef goes a step further, and serves Australian dory roe on a raw smoked Blackmore Wagyu and cultured cream dish, though he harvests and preserves the roe in the Quay kitchen. “It’s a similar size to flying fish roe, the Japanese product that is generally coloured. But I prefer a local fish, and the flavour is superior.”
Gilmore is experimental with caviar, but he turned away the Shark Bay wild scampi caviar from Western Australia, labelling the bright blue colour a deterrant. Yet Sydney chef Josh Niland uses the pearls on oysters at Saint Peter, and says a mouthful is like “being dumped by a wave”.
“The palate is sea water,” says Niland, “with the minerality of the ocean. Like the salmon and trout caviar Australia produces, it’s a no-brainer. We should be hugely proud of our home-grown caviar.”
Another champion of Australia’s caviar offering, chef Ian Curley at Melbourne’s French Saloon was an early adopter of Yarra Valley salmon caviar. “It’s a world-class ingredient, no doubt,” he says. “It’s so reasonably priced compared with black caviar.” It sells for $25 a serve on his menu, compared with up to $130 for sturgeon caviar.
Just in time for the champagne and caviar season, the Yarra Valley company will launch a new product to add into the range – smoked salmon roe – which like the other caviar will be sold in good delicatessans and fish markets. “We’ve finally mastered the right blend of salt and smoke to put out a red-hot product,” says Nick Gorman, Yarra Valley Caviar development manager.
Matt Moran, who visited the farm and milked salmon as part of his 2013 TV series Paddock To Plate, says the team has helped demystify caviar, proving that it’s not just an ingredient for the rich. Moran says the perfect way to experience it at home is the simple classic of blinis with creme fraiche, dill and a spoonful of Australian caviar on top. Serve it proudly at home for canape season, or dollop on a simple soft-boiled egg for breakfast.