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Riofrío: making caviar cool again

Spain on a plate

I’m not going to lie – caviar is not something that has ever really featured on my culinary radar. Overpriced, oversalty fish eggs always seemed the preserve of Russian oligarchs, rather than something I’d put on the dinner table. Until now. I recently spent six weeks housesitting in Andalucía, where I discovered the world’s first organic caviar farm was in the next village. Well it would have been rude not to pay a visit.

The farm at Riofrío gained its organic certification in 2000 and is still one of only three in the world; not surprising when you realise how hard it is to gain the certification and equally tough to keep it. There is a minimum of two inspections a year examining three things: the impact on the environment, animal wellbeing and the consumer. The farm must not damage the natural surroundings in any way and the water in which the animals (the keepers all refer to them as animals, rather than fish) live must be purer than pure – Riofrío has a natural spring 300m from the pools that is almost exactly the same temperature all year. The animals spend all day hunting for food, which they sense with their “barbels” (whiskers) and catch around 5-10% of what they consume. They are carnivorous and much of their food needs to be living as sturgeon use not only their own system, but that of the animal they are eating, to digest their food. They’re curious animals – more of which later.

Given the effort required to retain Caviar Riofrío’s organic status, it’s ironic that it came about almost by chance. The farm opened in 1963 to produce high quality trout. And it succeeded. But in order to build a reputation beyond Andalucía they needed a USP to make them stand out internationally. Hence sturgeon and, albeit around 20 years later, caviar.

Farming caviar is a long and complex process. Sturgeon can live for over a hundred years, although it doesn’t take that long to produce the caviar – a bit like humans, sturgeon have a particular point when they are in their prime, as it were – but neither does it happen overnight. At the age of about nine the animals are given an ultrasound to determine their sex. The male animals are then killed for meat – I tried it at one of the village’s restaurants and can confirm that smoked sturgeon rocks – while the females are microchipped for identification. Eight years later a second ultrasound determines when the eggs will be at optimum quality. There’s a narrow window of just 15 days of perfect maturity and if that is missed they wait another three years to extract the caviar, but otherwise the animals are “sacrificed” to remove the eggs and the rest used for meat.

The organic gamble has paid off – for the business, for the village and for the industry as a whole. Caviar Riofrío is known not only for the quality of its product, but for the research they have done to better understand the sturgeon. The farm’s Production Director, Alberto Domezain, told me that they are not like any other fish in either flavour or behaviour and the animals are treated with utmost respect by everyone that works on the farm.

For the village, the farm has been transformative. When it opened there were no restaurants in Riofrío – now there are 14. Of course, we can debate whether that’s entirely a good thing, but there’s no question that it has provided employment for a generation and boosted the economy and tourism of an otherwise anonymous village.

The farm’s impact on the industry has been similarly shapeshifting. Caviar Riofrío is changing impressions of farmed caviar and influencing industry-wide change. People used to be very snooty about farmed caviar – as they sometimes are about farmed trout or salmon. But alongside other luxury products like foie gras and veal, caviar has come under increasing scrutiny by consumers concerned about ethical consumption. There is controversy around the provenance of Russian and Iranian caviar and depleting stocks due to overfishing in the Caspian Sea, so chefs and experts have turned to farmed caviar as a sustainable alternative with restaurateurs including Gordon Ramsay and the Can Roca brothers heaping praise on Caviar Riofrío. Whilst Riofrío is still one of only three fully organic farms, there are now ethical farms in Devon, Yorkshire and the US, and I would expect the number of organic farms to increase in coming years.

I spent a fascinating morning at Riofrío, enjoyed some superb product (of which more here) and also boosted my pub quiz chances with the following sturgeon-related facts, which I feel duty bound to share. You’re welcome.

  • Sturgeon have been around since prehistoric times and haven’t changed much since them
  • Sturgeon are born with teeth, but lose them at three months. Similarly, they kick off swimming above water then head underneath once they become toothless!
  • They are highly sociable beings and don’t like to be given too much space. Some early occupants of the pools at Riofrío died because of loneliness. Bless!
  • They could break your ribs if they don’t like the cut of your jib

I didn’t get up close and personal with the animals, although if you arrange a group visit you can, but I am glad to be aware of the last point. Always best to be prepared.

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