With the world’s natural caviar sturgeon population in grave danger of extinction, Spanish entrepreneurs are leaping in to help nature–and to make nice profits. One of the leaders in this field is Caviar Río Frío, who took advantage of the ideal waters of their trout farm in a Granada village to begin to raise sturgeon for caviar. That was 25 years ago. Today this Granada fish farm is the world’s only provider of certified ecological caviar.
The sturgeon is an antediluvian fish that lived blissfully for a quarter of a billion years until a predatory species called homo sapiens developed a taste for its eggs. These ruthless predators built dams that impeded the sturgeon’s access to its breeding grounds, polluted their rivers with toxic waste and overfished them mercilessly. Today almost all of the sturgeon in the world are on the endangered species lists and those most sought after for their roe are teetering on the razor’s edge of extinction.
The beluga sturgeon (huso huso), the emperor of caviar sturgeon and the source of the Russian and Iranian black caviar, which has kept the world’s most exacting palates in thrall for centuries, and whose successful reproduction in captivity is in doubt, faces imminent extinction. International controls on wild-fish caviar production arrived too little and too late. The numbers of beluga sturgeon have declined by 90% over the past 20 years. Those of the Lower Volga River, which empties into the Caspian Sea and used to be the principal source of caviar sturgeon, have dropped to 1% of their former population in just 15 years, according to the Russian fisheries agency.
Then there’s the issue of poaching. A spokesperson for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which banned beluga imports into the U.S. in October 2005, states candidly that legal caviar represents only about 5% of the total trade, the other 95% being supplied by out-of-control mafias. The upshot of this sturgeon hecatomb is that caviar lovers around the world are looking for alternatives.
This is where a humble fish farm located on a miraculous river in a Granada village of 283 inhabitants called Río Frío enters the picture. Piscifactoría Sierra Nevada, founded in 1955 by a doctor from Navarra in the north of Spain, dedicated the first three decades of its existence essentially to farming trout to a size of 200 grams and selling them to restaurants. Those of the village of Río Frío itself became important customers, as the village was located on the highway between Granada and Málaga, a perfect stop for a meal of fresh or smoked trout. It wasn’t till 1987 that the fishery’s management, with astonishing foresight, decided to embark on the long and arduous job of raising sturgeon for caviar. Even more remarkable was their decision to opt for ecological farming procedures, much more demanding, time-consuming and expensive to implement, but resulting in a superior product. This decision for quality, taken 25 years ago, has placed Río Frío Caviar, the company’s current name, in the forefront of the scramble for the whole-new-ballgame caviar market.
The Granada company—which, since 2011, is now Finnish with some Russian financing—currently holds in its breeding tanks 400 metric tons, some 70,000 Acipenser naccarii (Adriatic sturgeon), the largest number in captivity anywhere and capable of sustained , ecological, commercial caviar production. Since sturgeon are slow to grow and produce caviar this breeding stock gives Granada an advantage over their competition from countries such as France, Italy, Romania Bulgaria, China and Abu Dhabi, who is now building a $120 million indoor caviar farm using German technology. Their huge stock of fish also lends some credibility to the claims of the Río Frío folks of having “saved A. naccarii from extinction.”
Another factor in Río Frío’s success is its pristine mountain water, which flows all year round from springs located just above their breeding installations at a minimum rate of 3,000 liters per second and a temperature of 15º centigrade, unaffected by any intervening contamination factors. This massive water flow permits them to raise their fish in a one-third occupation rate of their holding capacity, assuring healthy, happy fish and higher quality caviar. This vital space and their diet of brine shrimp (artemia salina) supplemented with feed made from the remains of slaughtered sturgeon, are the mainstays of Río Frío’s ecological credentials.
It Takes Time to Achieve Top Quality
There are less demanding—and less expensive—ways to farm sturgeon. Caviar can be produced in half the 16-year period it takes Río Frío to produce theirs, but the process requires the use of oxygenated water, hormones and overfeeding, which inevitably affect the quality of the product, procedures that Río Frío has always rejected. It takes them eight years just to determine sex of the fish, at which time the males are slaughtered (the Spanish say “sacrificado”) for their meat and the females are run on for seven or eight years more to develop their precious roe.
Besides establishing themselves as the world’s only certified ecological producer of caviar, the Río Frío people have gone to some trouble to uncover a genealogy establishing A. naccarii as an autochthonous fish of the nearby Guadalquivir River and its tributaries. Whether for patriotic reasons or sheer business acumen they are intent upon proving that the Adriatic sturgeon was also a native of Spanish waters, thus somehow making it “their” sturgeon, too.
A tempest in a caviar spoon raged over this issue since 1997 until recently when a team of three scientists from Spain’s Superior Council of Scientific Research, working at the Molecular Ecology Laboratory at the Doñana Biological Station, using DNA techniques, cleared up the question in a paper entitled “Identification of Sturgeon Originating in the Guadalquivir by Means of DNA Analysis of Museum Specimens.” They sum up their conclusions thus: “The identification of sample number EBD-8174 as A. sturio, (also known as Baltic or common sturgeon) disagrees with the results of Garrido Ramos et al. and reinforces the theses that consider that this was the only species of sturgeon that inhabited the Guadalquivir River.” This, conclude the three scientists, precludes a historic presence of A. naccarii in the Guadalquivir.
Caviar is the unfertilized roe of a mature sturgeon which, at Río Frío, is slaughtered around age 16 and a weight between 35 and 40 kilos. Ecological Río Frío caviar is full-bodied and nuanced, its glistening gray-green “berries”—as the sturgeons’ eggs are known in the trade—are medium grain and firm in texture, similar to the osetra caviars from the Caspian region, according to experts. The natural culture of Río Frío sturgeon and the impeccable elaboration of its caviar have accorded it the honor of being the first—and as yet the only—certified ecological caviar in the world, for which discerning customers are prepared to pay accordingly.
They sell three types of caviar: Ecological is the freshest, most exquisite and most expensive. It’s elaborated according to the Russian Malossol tradition, adding just
3-4% of salt and no conservatives. Their traditional-style caviar, made in the classical Iranian manner, is saltier with a conservative added. The Russian-style product, called Payusnaya, is also salted (8%), conserved and sold in tins. This latter is noteworthy as the only caviar suitable for cooking and therefore well-loved by chefs. Prices range (roughly, as they are constantly changing) from 460€ to 624€ for 200 grams. For those whose budgets don’t permit them to eat caviar the gentle folks at Río Frío offer us an inexpensive consolation prize: a mother-of-pearl caviar spoon for only 12€.
“Despite the worldwide financial crisis,” wrote Raphael Minder in the NY Times last year, “caviar is among a select group of luxury goods that have weathered the downturn in consumer spending, maintaining a wholesale price of about 1,000 euros a kilogram ($590 a pound) for most varieties.” Minder quotes Patrick Williot, a French sturgeon researcher who estimates that world caviar production, currently standing at some 250 tons—almost exclusively from farmed sturgeon—compared to 550 tons in the 1970s. In contrast with the former production based on wild sturgeon, the present production is continually increasing. This increase in supply may well, in time, lower the price of caviar to the point we can use our caviar spoons.
The magic word in the caviar trade is “beluga,” since that has traditionally been the denomination of the world’s finest—and most expensive—Caspian and Black Sea caviar. Many customers like to specify “beluga” in order to be sure they’re getting the good stuff. But, as we have discovered, true beluga caviar, that from the Beluga or European sturgeon (huso huso), is in desperately short supply. And it doesn’t exist in Spain. So the casual name dropping of “beluga”on the Caviar Río Frío website should be taken with a grain of salt.
Here’s British chef, Gordon Ramsay’s, somewhat risqué version of Caviar Río Frió:
Editor’s note: Our sincere thanks to Carlos Azcoytia and the team of researchers and writers at www.historiacocina.com for their excellent documentation, helpful in the writing of this article.