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

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents -

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.

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