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food / travel

Ring In New Year With The Latest In Culinary Luxury: Swiss Caviar

For the first time, the high-end fish eggs are being bred in Switzerland, where the well-to-do have long enjoyed imported caviar. But it was an odd twist that allowed for the sturgeon to flourish: lukewarm water coming out of a draining gallery in railway

The Tropical House in Switzerland will produce 300kg of caviar by February 2012 (swissinfo.ch)
The Tropical House in Switzerland will produce 300kg of caviar by February 2012 (swissinfo.ch)
Silviane Blum

FRUTIGEN – Despite the crisis, some lucky few might be celebrating New Year's with a little caviar to go along with their Champagne. And for the first time, an even smaller subset of those lucky few will be able to taste caviar harvested in Switzerland. Some 300 kilograms has been produced in the heart of the Swiss Alps, and should be available in select stores until February.

The World Sturgeon Conservation Society (WSCS) has been encouraging the development of sturgeon farms to prevent the species from going extinct. The Swiss "Tropical House" took on the task in 2005, bringing in Siberian sturgeon. There are 35,000 today, and this winter the first females are producing eggs. The company is hoping to be profitable in three to five years, with an annual output of about three tons of caviar and 18 tons of sturgeon filets thanks to a 60,000 fish contingent.

The factory is brand new and bacteria free: masks and hats are mandatory, as well as gloves, shoes and special clothes. Hands and shoes must be disinfected. Tobias Felix has just knocked out a female sturgeon and killed it by cutting its gills in accordance with animal protection rules. He puts the 7kg fish on its back in a special steel container and rinses it with water and alcohol. Then he makes an incision with a special knife.

"The little ball at its tip prevents us from damaging the ovaries," he says as he's cutting the fish open. It takes another person to complete the process. His colleague holds the fish open while Felix extracts the eggs. He drops the soft pinkish mass covered with multiple black pearls in a bowl.

Moving on to another room, Felix takes a fistful of the mass and rubs it on a metallic grill to extract the black eggs. He then rinses the caviar with water to remove what's left of tissue and fat, as well as damaged eggs.

Time for quality control: the expert takes a small drop of the caviar and puts it on his bare wrist, tests its consistency with his finger and finally tastes the luxury product. "Caviar shouldn't smell like fish, it should taste a bit like walnuts," he says as he weighs the eggs. "Each female produces about 500 grams of caviar."

Felix than adds salt, a maximum of 3.5% of the total weight. After 15 minutes of draining, the caviar is tasted again to make sure the consistency and taste are perfect. The caviar is then packaged in 30 and 50g metal containers that will be stored in a secure refrigerator and flipped daily to equally spread the humidity. The final product will be sold for between $125 and $200 euros per container.

The rest of the fish isn't lost. "The meat is perfect for smoked filets," says Felix. The Tropical House wants to use all of the sturgeons, not just their eggs. Male fish make fresh, tender and boneless filets. The company is also looking for a craftsman to make bags and other accessories from sturgeon skin.

Odd origins

The first Siberian sturgeon were brought to Switzerland six years ago in unusual circumstances. Since the Swiss started building the Lotschberg railway tunnel through the Alps, 100 liters of 20-degree water was running every second through a draining gallery toward the Kander valley. The water is too warm to directly spill in the region's rivers, home to the trout, an endangered species. So the idea was to use the warm water to breed sturgeon and grow tropical fruit while doing without an energy-wasting cooling system.

The conditions allow females to start producing eggs earlier. "The warm water gives the sturgeons a never-ending summer," says Patrick Gufel. In Siberia, they spend the winter in 2-degree water and develop slower, reaching maturity at 11.

Thanks to Dmitri Pugovkin who specializes in aquaculture, the company recreated the sturgeon's natural habitat. They built rectangular cement pools with a central wall around which water circulates constantly. "This allows the sturgeons to swim against the current, like in their original streams."

Another important detail: sturgeons are almost blind and look for food with very sensitive whiskers, which can't bare any gravel. "In their native rivers, the stream cleans the bottom of the river which is as smooth as a highway."

"Breeding these ancestral fish in captivity is the only way to ensure they keep their genetic heritage," says Pugovkin. The 27 types of sturgeon found in Central and Northern Asia, Europe and North America are endangered species. One day, the Tropical House's efforts may bring more than just financial rewards by repopulating rivers with these ancient fish.

Read the original article in French

Photo - swissinfo.ch

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