Caviar has been associated with fine dining and luxury for more than one hundred years, and now the salt-cured sturgeon eggs are finding new popularity as a "superfood".
"Obviously, it's still an expensive product, but we're seeing a lot more people buying large volumes of caviar for its nutritional value," says Josh Rea, owner of Gourmet Life food store in Darling Point, Sydney.
One spoonful of caviar contains high levels of protein, magnesium, zinc, essential fats and all the omegas.
"Historically, people have always known caviar is super good for you," says Lisa Downs, caviar ambassador for fine-food purveyor Simon Johnson.
"Fourth century Iranians used it to help rebuild their immune system after illness, while warriors preparing for battle where made to eat copious amounts of caviar to increase their strength. Now Iranian caviar producers are always banging on about its nutritional profile on Instagram."
Rea and Downs both say their caviar sales have "absolutely" increased over the past 12 months, largely due to caviar's growing "superfood" status and a price drop of almost 30 per cent compared with five years ago thanks to more farmed imports on the market.
"Overfishing, damming and pollution led to an international ban on wild catch of all 27 types of sturgeon species in 2008," says Downs.
"When the ban happened, there were 15 farms around the world with export licenses and sturgeon mature enough to produce eggs. It is now estimated there are more than 2000 farms growing sturgeon and 300 able to produce caviar."
Rea, who believes Gourmet Life may have the largest caviar display in the southern hemisphere, says more chefs using caviar in new and delicious ways has also contributed to the black pearls' popularity growth.
"I've seen chefs stirring caviar through pasta, or putting big dollops of it on creamy burrata cheese. You can have more fun with it thanks to the lower price. I expect sales will certainly continue to increase as more people become aware of what good caviar is."
A bluffer's guide to caviar
What is it and where is it from?
The farmed and cured roe of the sturgeon, a large grey fish with an evolution dating back to the Triassic period. China is the biggest producer by volume, followed by Italy and Poland. Russia and Iran have many farms, but very few with export licences. "One of the biggest misconceptions about caviar is that it all comes from Russia," says Downs. "The biggest Russian farm with a license to export to Australia also pasteurises its caviar and it's not a product I want to sell."
What's the deal with pasteurisation?
Properly stored, fresh vacuum-sealed caviar will be at its best for around four to six weeks. Pasteurised caviar is heat-treated for a longer shelf life, however many caviar purists frown on the process. "All you're doing with pasteurisation is giving the caviar a longer shelf life by a couple of months, while making the eggs firm instead of leaving them soft and delicate," says Rea. A pasteurised caviar often won't be labelled as such, but you can tell by the shelf life which will be anywhere between six to nine months.
How is it harvested?
Usually ethically and sustainably in farms, from the belly of a stunned and sliced open sturgeon. A black market for wild-caught sturgeon caviar exists, however it is highly unlikely any would be sold in Australia.
What types of caviar are best?
Some of the most common types of caviar are sterling (from the white sturgeon), beluga (huso huso sturgeon) and oscietra courtesy of the ancient Russian sturgeon. All types of caviar have different taste profiles - oscietra is buttery with a hint of hazelnut, for example, and beluga is delicate and creamy. "Every time I hold a caviar tasting for chefs, everyone has a different favourite," says Downs.
OK, how much are we talking?
Even after its 30 per cent price drop, caviar remains a pricey item. A 30g tin (just enough for two people) of oscietra will sell for around $150, although the same amount of sterling caviar might come in at $95. Beluga is the most expensive and a 30g tin will be close to $200 because of its longer production time. "It takes around nine years, but often longer, for a sturgeon species to start producing eggs that can be used for caviar," says Downs. "For beluga sturgeons, that age sits between 21 and 24 years and the girls can ovulate well into their nineties."
How should it be stored?
In the coldest part of the fridge, but never frozen. "Freezing will stretch caviar to the point where it breaks the little eggs and the tin will be an oily mess when you open it," says Rea.
How should I eat it?
Anyone splashing out on caviar for New Year's Eve may like to eat caviar traditionally with creme fraiche and blinis, but it's also very good on potato skins, hard-boiled eggs and even fried chicken. Purists will often eat it on its own, warmed to body temperature on the back of the hand to maximise flavour. Cold vodka and champagne are the drink accompaniments of choice.
Where to buy?