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French caviar's comeback

In a quiet corner of the country, France's delicacy is enjoying an appetizing renaissance.

November 21, 2010|Heidi Fuller-Love, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • French fishermen have been netting sturgeon in the Gironde estuary near Bordeaux for centuries. More recently, Alan Jones and Jean Boucher have undertaken a quest to revive the region's caviar tradition by farming sturgeon, source of the delicacy.
French fishermen have been netting sturgeon in the Gironde estuary near… (Heidi Fuller-Love )

Reporting from Saint-Seurin d’Uzet, France — "Ethical caviar" might sound like an oxymoron, but as a lover of "black pearls" who hates that years of overfishing have seriously depleted the Caspian Sea's sturgeon population, I was fascinated by a story in a local French newspaper. "British Man Brings Politically Correct Caviar Back to France," said the headline, next to a photo of Alan Jones cradling what looked like an emaciated shark.

A few weeks later I'm in southwest France, driving a rental car past a glorious blur of dune-fringed coastline studded with carrelets — those jetties fitted with square fishing nets that look like something out of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" — to meet Jones.

A market is in progress at Saint-Seurin d'Uzet, on the right bank of the Gironde estuary, near Bordeaux when I arrived at midday. Weaving past stalls piled high with sun-gilded pots of thyme honey and chalky medallions of goat cheese, I turned off on a ribbon strip of road and drove in a flicker of light and shade through dense oak forests.

Through a break in the trees I glimpsed a dozen bottle-green, soccer field-size pools of water linked by emerald necklaces of grass — it's L'Ecloserie de Guyenne, Jones' sturgeon farm. He's up to his knees in one of these shallow troughs, surrounded by a froth of sharp black fins. "I'm doing biopsies on the female sturgeon to see if the roe is ready for harvest," he said, barely glancing up. "It's a race against time because the eggs become rapidly mature, and we only harvest unripe roe for fresh caviar."

If you mention Gallic caviar — even in France — you're likely to get mystified looks. Though caviar is readily linked to Russia and Iran, true connoisseurs know fishermen have been netting sturgeon for centuries in the Gironde estuary.

Not that caviar was an instant hit. When gouty King Louis XV took his first mouthful in 1750, he spat it out with a roar of disgust. It wasn't until a Romanoff, on the run from the Bolsheviks, arrived in Saint-Seurin d'Uzet sometime in the 1920s that the reign of French caviar really began. According to local legend, the Russian royal was devastated to see fishermen eating sturgeon with French fries, so she whipped out a tortoiseshell spoon and made them try its precious roe. They must have liked it because they were soon producing five tons a year, earning this backwater port in a bend of the Gironde the title of France's Caviar Capital.

Unfortunately, the smooth-skinned sturgeon was no match for the frenetic overfishing that followed that roe revelation. By the 1990s the Gironde sturgeon was nearly extinct when Jones, a marine biologist from Leicester, England, arrived on the scene and joined forces with French businessman Jean Boucher. In 1995, the quixotic pair used personal funds to buy an abandoned fish hatchery near the Gironde estuary in a quest to revive the region's caviar tradition by farming sturgeon.

"We farm Siberian baerii, a river species traditionally prized for its flesh, because it grows to maturity in just eight years and is better adapted to captivity," Jones said.

The fish farmer showed me into his cluttered office, where a stuffed sturgeon with armor-plated skin stared glassily at a line of trophies won by his company Sturgeon SCEA, whose brands include Sturia Caviar d'Aquitaine and Sturia Selection Grand Chef.

Pointing to a photo of fish floundering on the forest floor, he told me about the hurricane in 1999 that nearly put him and his partner out of business. "Our breeding pens were flooded, and when the waters finally receded, 2,500 female baerii sturgeon carrying 500 kilos [about 1,100 pounds] of caviar had gone AWOL. At an average price of 750 euros ($1,070) a kilo I leave you to calculate the loss," he said with a wry grin.

Like all good tales, however, this one had a happy ending. From humble beginnings producing about 900 pounds of caviar a year, Jones' and Boucher's company now has six fish farms, all in the Gironde area, and is France's biggest producer of caviar, with about about 40,000 pounds a year, available at Harrods and Fortnum & Mason in London and, locally, Sir Anthony's Fine Gourmet Foods in Thousand Oaks.

So what is so wonderful about French caviar? "The price, for a start," said Jones. "Cheaper than Iranian or Russian caviar, our French product is blissfully unaffected by the pecuniary fluctuations which often hamper the wild market."

But does lower price equal lesser quality?

"Not at all. Our caviar has often been compared to Ossetra, which is the best caviar on the market."

Bold words that I decided to test at La Tupina, one of Bordeaux's best-known restaurants, owned by chef Jean-Pierre Xiradakis who serves dishes prepared with Jones' caviar.

A grandfather clock chimed solemnly as I took my seat opposite a vast hearth where a duck roasted on a spit above a blazing fire. Xiradakis brought me a dish of Sturia Caviar d'Aquitaine, spooned on a mini blini topped with sour cream. The grains were velvety with a dull golden brown gleam. They popped on the tongue, releasing the sweet zest of sea and a hint of smoked salmon that had me reaching for more. I sipped a mouthful of Champagne and mused on the irony of an Englishman's heading France's No. 1 caviar-producing company.

But then the free-wheeling sturgeon, which migrates more than 2,000 miles to spawn each year, is surely proof that details such as nationality will never be a bar to joining the ranks of caviar's cognoscenti.

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