The UAE has become one of the fastest growing caviar markets. Laura Collins reports on how an Abu Dhabi consortium is carving out a significant share of production with a fresh, radical approach in order to meet an ever-increasing global demand.
The luxurious part of Musaffah: caviar production
It is hardly the most prepossessing of locations. Deep in Abu Dhabi's Musaffah, a satellite district characterised by industry, arrival here is not so much about having reached your destination as having simply run out of road. It is hard to imagine a setting more at odds with any hint of glamour or promise of luxury. But luxury is what Bin Salem Holding's The Royal Caviar Company (TRCC) is all about and this is where its gleaming facility stands.
Hundreds of miles from the Caspian Sea, more than 50,000 square metres of Gulf desert have been given over to producing, packaging and selling one of the most expensive delicacies in the world.
Wild sturgeon, the traditional source, have been overfished to the point of endangerment, and global demand still outstrips supply by 400 tonnes a year. The Middle East has one of the fastest growing caviar markets in the world with the UAE alone consuming 14 tonnes a year. According to Robert Harper, Bin Salem Holding Group commercial director:
"The wild caviar market will cease to exist as fish farming produces high-quality product in an environmentally friendly way. In the wild, Russia and Iran are the experts but they can't compete in aquaculture. There are people in Europe doing it on a small scale, some in South America and some in America. but there is plenty of market to go round. Which is not to say that we don't want our unfair share of it."
TRCC had its first small harvest in August - a non-commercial test run of imported mature fish that convinced them they are on track.
"We tested experts with a little biscuit of our caviar in one hand and one of wild harvest caviar in the other and they couldn't tell the difference," Harper says.
Thanks to the expertise of the company's plant production manager, Muhanad Abu Awad, who has had 15 years experience as an aquaculture engineer, TRCC hopes to guarantee a consistent quality and plentiful quantity of caviar that wild harvesting simply cannot.
"In nature the fish don't reliably get what they need," says Abu Awad. "Here we feed them organically and we pamper them."
Like many of life's finer things, caviar requires considerable investment of both time and money. So far Bin Salem Holding has poured close to Dh55million into the project, with work having begun on the TRCC facility in 2008.
When running at capacity the farm will produce 35 tonnes of caviar, representing 10 per cent of the global market, and up to 710 tonnes of sturgeon meat and fillets. Given that the retail price of their caviar will be around Dh20 a gram, it doesn't take a genius to see just how lucrative this industry could prove.
A shipment of 120,000 tonnes of mature fish will soon be delivered from Germany, allowing the first commercial harvest towards the end of next year. But it will be five years before UAE customers can pop open a jar of truly local caviar and spoon it onto their blini pancakes. That is the length of time between hatching and maturity in farmed sturgeon. The first TRCC fingerlings hatched in September and have begun their journey through a series of ever-larger rearing tanks as they grow from 0.02 grams to their full 10 kilograms.
Not all will last that long – at two to three years the gender of each fish is determined and the males are summarily dispatched, leaving the females to continue their pampered existence to maturity.
In the wild it can take more than 10 years for a fish to produce caviar. Here it will take just half of that. It is not, Abu Awad is quick to point out, a question of simply focusing on bulking up their livestock. "We need them to grow the right way and to grow healthily," he says.
Their feed is organic and chemical free, 90 per cent of the water is recirculated through bio-filters and the remaining 10 per cent flushed and used to irrigate Abu Dhabi's green areas.
Everything in TRCC's facility is bespoke and state of the art: from the feeding robot – it runs on tracks suspended from the ceiling – depositing precisely the right mix of dry feed with the right frequency to the various growing tanks, to the monitors that measure pH levels, ozone presence, temperature, chemistry and bacteria levels and send all that information to a central computer.
After five years an ultrasound is used to check for caviar. If there, a biopsy is used to extract a sample. If the eggs are white, the harvest is another six months away; if grey, three months are needed, if black, it is time and the fish are kept unfed in fresh cold water for six weeks so that any off-tastes – muddiness or oiliness – are flushed from their flesh, which will be turned into fillets, and their caviar, which is really what the whole process is all about.
The finished product will not be cheaper than wild caviar. There is no surer way of killing the allure of luxury than offering it cut price. Besides, if TRCC's ambitions are achieved, then one day UAE caviar farmed in Musaffah will equal or better anything Beluga, Ossetra and Sevruga have to offer.
One day it will prove to be the UAE's other black gold.
Status quo of roe
There are four main types of caviar: Beluga, Sterlet, Ossetra and Sevruga, each named after the type of sturgeon from which the roe - or unfertilised eggs - is harvested. Only the sifted, salted roe of sturgeon can be labelled simply caviar with no further description.
- Beluga is the rarest and costliest and grey/black in colour.
- Sterlet is golden, Ossetra is brown and Sevruga is grey.
- Beluga sturgeon swim in the Caspian Sea but overfishing has endangered stocks.
- Lake Sturgeon can be found in the Great Lakes of North America and were once so abundant that the US was the world's leading producer of caviar. During the 1800s it was so plentiful it was served as a bar snack in saloons - the salty taste encouraging customers' thirst.