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Friday, December 9, 2016, 09:29

Fishy business

By Mike Peters

A Chinese caviar farm has become a prominent player in the global gourmet business, producing five kinds of roe for diners with a taste for luxury. Mike Peters reports.

Fishy business
Chefs Johnston Ang (left) and Deivid Paiva prepare sturgeon caviar rolls. (Photo provided to China Daily )

When Portuguese chef Deivid Paiva goes to the markets that supply his restaurant, he usually doesn't come back with his white tunic smeared with blood.

But Paiva's recent market visit is nothing ordinary: The newly arrived chef who just took over the kitchen at Beijing's Grill 79 is checking out the sturgeon at China's biggest caviar production center. Sturgeon are prehistoric giants that have evolved from the Triassic era some 245 to 208 million years ago. The sharklike creatures can live for a century and weigh 1,000 kilograms. At this fish farm, the late-maturing fish are nurtured from seven to 15 years, depending on the species, before they are harvested for their culinary black gold.

A small group of food writers joins Paiva and his boss, executive chef Johnston Ang from the China World Summit Wing hotel, to visit Hangzhou Qiandaohu Xunlong Sci-tech Company at Qiandao Lake (Thousand Island Lake) in Quzhou, Zhejiang province. In that vast manmade lake developed for hydro power, the company says it produces 60 tons of fish roe annually - about 30 percent of the global caviar business.

Paiva can't resist a hands-on encounter, wrestling a young sturgeon out of a net for a close look at the fearsome-looking fish. By the time he released the creature a few minutes later - sturgeon can be out of water for about 15 minutes with no ill effects - his coat was smeared with red. The chef was unhurt; the bloody marks came from superficial scratches on the fish that farm managers said would quickly heal.

Fishy business
Paiva has a handson encounter with a young sturgeon at Qiandao Lake in Quzhou, Zhejiang province. (Photo pr ovided to China Daily)

The fish must tolerate a certain amount of handling. Nurtured in pens in the freshwater lake, the creatures must be moved around occasionally - to warmer or cooler water - as weather changes. Sturgeon find their way to water that feels right naturally in the wild, but farmed fish need some human assistance.

When the sturgeon are about 6 years old, their sex becomes apparent. Females are separated and nurtured for up to nine more years, while the males are destined to become fish soup or fish meal.

The company raises five species of sturgeon, each producing caviar with a different flavor and market. Since it was founded in 2003, Kaluga Queen has established an international-standard production center, based on Russian and Iranian technique, that has been certified by quality-control agencies around the world.

The company was chosen to serve caviar at this year's G20 summit in Hangzhou. You don't get invited to place your caviar in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is the world's biggest consumer of caviar, unless you are at the top of your game.

At the farm, once the fish start producing roe, they make a lot of it - the carcasses seem almost hollow once the fish eggs are carved out in a very surgical procedure. The face-masked workers have it down pat: It takes a little more than a minute from the first incision until the empty carcass glides away on a conveyor belt, making way for the next bounty of fresh roe.

Most in our group are surprised to learn that fresh sturgeon caviar is only slightly salty: The familiar saline taste comes from packing the harvested fish eggs in salt for several weeks of curing.

While the group's first day on the waters of the 573 square km lake was all about fish, Day 2 was all about caviar. After a demonstration of harvesting to curing in the processing plant, a sumptuous luncheon was prepared by the two Shangri-La chefs. The tasting began with nibbles of each of the five caviar products, served with glasses of prosecco.

"You need that acidity and that freshness to accompany caviar - like you do with oysters," says chef Ang.

After the caviar tasting, the formal lunch includes an Alaskan king crab roll highlighted with three dollops of caviar on top, presented with a colorful salad to make the plate a visual treat. The dish is featured on Pavia's new menu at Grill 79, the Western restaurant in the China World Summit Wing in Beijing.

Fishy business
A crab roll highlighted with dollops of caviar on the top. (Photo provided to China Daily )

The vast majority of the finished caviar goes to the export market - Russia, France, Germany and elsewhere - and different countries have their preferred tastes. Some species produce caviar with a denser, chewier texture; one has a distinctly nutty taste, another is more buttery; yet another retains freshness even after curing.

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