ABU DHABI // Once seen as inferior to wild caviar, its farmed equivalent is fast becoming a multimillion-dollar industry, andthe people behind a new venture hope some of those profits will come to the UAE.
Sturgeon farms in Iran, Israel, France, Italy, Germany and Uruguay have stepped up production after international officials all but shut down the wild caviar market in 2006 following concerns about overfishing of the endangered wild Caspian sturgeon.
Bin Salem Holding, a local conglomerate, and United Food Technologies (UFT), a German company, have paired up to launch AquaOrbis, the Middle East's largest fish farm.
Last month, the first shipment of Siberian sturgeon was airlifted from Germany to AquaOrbis's six-hectare site in Musaffah.
The first harvest is due by the end of this year. Eventually, the farm will have 130,000 adult sturgeon and produce 31 tonnes of caviar a year.
To grow roe (eggs) equal in quality to the distinctive buttery flavour and firm pearl of wild caviar, farmed sturgeon are raised in tightly controlled conditions, with specially developed technology such as microchip implants.
Agroittica Lombarda, the world's largest caviar firm, harvests about 20 tonnes of roe each year from its 25 hectares of freshwater ponds in Italy. A microchip is implanted in each fish's head to collect information on genetics, parentage, weight and movement from each pond.
The data is vital for maintaining the genetic diversity of the stock as well as monitoring fish growth.
"You have to manipulate the fish one by one. It's not like trout or salmon farming, where you can take a net and pump fish into a machine that counts and weighs them," Sandro Cancellieri, chief operating officer of Agroittica, said.
Similarly, UFT has spent years developing and patenting its own technology. It has created its own purification system, and monitors the quality of the water in a dedicated laboratory. The result is an energy-efficient operation that produces harvests year-round.
Fish need at least five years before roe is ready to be harvested, and the eggs have to be checked to see if they have matured enough.
Harvest them too early, and not enough fat - which gives the caviar its buttery taste - will have transferred from the mother's belly to the roe. Too late, and the pearls will be mushy. The ideal harvest period, when the flavour is perfect, lasts just two weeks.
Determining the optimum harvest time relies largely on the expert taste buds of a caviar master, according to Alexander Zwyer, the president of Zwyer Caviar in Uruguay.
Farmers take a biopsy of the fish, and a caviar master tastes the roe to determine if it is ready to be harvested. AquaOrbis uses ultrasound scans to help tell if the roe is ready, but according to Aref Dogmoch, a member of UFT's board, years of experience and training "cannot be substituted by anything else".
There is one obvious challenge for fish farming in the UAE: fresh water. Many farms, including Zwyer and Agroittica, rely on nearby water sources to provide their fish with constant, flowing, fresh water.
"We pump 1.5 cubic metres of water per second [into the channels]. That's a lake," Mr Cancellieri said.
That is not an option in the UAE, so AquaOrbis will use a recirculation system. Some believe, however, that recirculation increases the risk of algae and ammonia building up in the tanks, with possible disastrous consequences for the caviar.
"Sturgeon feed at the bottom," Mr Zwyer said, "which means if the bottom is not clean, the fish will feed in its own dirt, and the caviar takes on a muddy taste."
UFT says it will use multiple filters, including ultraviolet and biological treatments, to cleanse the water of any bacteria and impede algal growth.
Temperature can be a hurdle, too. Sturgeon need water temperatures of 20C or below to grow well and produce decent-sized roe. "Water temperature is very important," Mr Zwyer said. "It might be a big headache for someone in the Gulf region."
Harder to overcome, perhaps, will be the challenge of perception. Once it has caviar to sell, AquaOrbis will have to prove itself to caviar connoisseurs in the UAE.
Much of the caviar produced in Europe is sold to airlines, which offer it to business and first-class travellers, and to high-end hotels.
Michael Pearson, executive chef for the Shangri-La hotel in Abu Dhabi, said that while each caviar taste differs, quality caviar can be either farmed or wild.
His hotel stocks both the popular wild Iranian Beluga and farmed French Prestige Caviar. Mr Pearson said he would consider adding AquaOrbis to the menu, but only if it surpassed the quality of better-known stock.
"Caviar is quite a specific product," he said. "We would need to ensure that the taste, quality and size of the pearl is equal or better than the imported caviar products to get the real caviar aficionados to switch."