Sturgeon fish are as old as the dinosaurs, and the caviar that they produce has been prized as a luxury food for thousands of years. But, with the virtual extinction of wild sturgeon, farmed caviar has now come into its own. At Caviar de France, exclusivity and quality are paramount. Everything, from the breeding of its fish to the production of its caviar, is done on-site from the company’s base in Biganos, on the Arcachon Bay in south-west France.
Caviar de France has chosen to swim against the tide and remain small, with only 12 hectares. “Unlike many of our competitors, we’re not interested in expanding or industrializing,” says Marketing Director Heather Ducretot. “We employ low-density, sustainable and ethical farming techniques and avoid using chemicals or antibiotics. And, unlike many other producers who harvest their caviar at seven years, we don’t harvest ours until the fish is, on average, 10 years old. We do that because we know that a fish that has lived longer and had time to grow has got more fatty tissue, which produces a far better product.”
The result is the brand’s famous Ébène caviar, which is known for its exquisite flavour and which is matured for several months. “It is not too salty – too much salt overwhelms the flavour,” says Heather. “Our caviar has a subtle taste that has an exceptional persistence on the palate. It is known in France as the haute couture of caviar.” Ébène was rewarded for this achievement with a one-star rating in the 2017 Great Taste Awards.
This part of the Gironde has produced caviar for more than a century: Russian emigrants arrived in the region in the 1890s and explained to the local fishermen that it is better to fish sturgeon for its eggs than its flesh. Caviar de France is situated on the site of a 19th century flour mill, which was converted into a fish farm in the mid-1960s. Originally dedicated to trout, in the 1980s it became part of a French government pilot project to breed sturgeon, chosen because of its excellent water quality. The fish tanks are fed by river water, which then goes back into the river. In 1993, it produced the world’s first harvest of caviar from farmed sturgeon and it now produces 1.5 tonnes a year.
The company was also the first caviar producer to develop gift boxes, ice bags and ice packs to accompany its next-day caviar-delivery service throughout France and most of Europe. Approximately 45 per cent of its sales are direct-to-retail customers, some of whom have developed such a taste for it that they buy it in vast quantities.
Its caviar brands – in addition to Ébène, the company also produces Caviar No. 3 and Diva Caviar, which uses only natural salts – are also sold in high-end shops, such as epiceries, and served in Michelin-starred restaurants, where it is used in imaginative recipes. At Maison Blanche in Paris, the chef Fabrice Giraud recently created a savoury cheesecake made from goat’s cheese, petit pois and Ébène caviar.
The focus for the future is to develop its export business, so it can better serve its international clientele. But while caviar is now more accessible than ever, Heather is sure it will never become commonplace or lose its position as an aspirational luxury food. “Caviar is extraordinary because it takes so long to obtain and produce,” she says. “It’s a noble product.”