“Kristal caviar is our regular caviar although we use Oscietra and Beluga too,” says Lepinoy, who insists on serving his caviar at a temperature of about 16 degrees Celsius. “Kaviari curates a special selection for us - the pearls are about 2.5mm in diameter and the maturation is shorter than the industry average of six months to yield minimum salt flavour and exudate.”
“Chef Lepinoy works with our Caviar Master to define the quality he is looking for - the caviar grains have to be a specific size and well-balanced in taste and aroma,” says David Macouin, international sales director of Kaviari. The Paris-based caviar house has been working with Lepinoy for 22 years. Clarifying their role, Macouin says that Kaviari is not a producer or a farmer, but a refiner, who works exclusively with farms to breed endemic species, offering caviar from farmed sturgeons “worthy of the wild caviar of the past.”
To work with the Kaviari house, he says, farmers are required to respect three key criteria, namely quality of water, well-being of sturgeons as well as certified GMO-free and antibiotics-free feed. Rearing sturgeons is a time-consuming affair. According to Macouin, female sturgeons take between 7 and 20 years to mature depending on species. At its longest. Beluga takes 18 years and the hybrid of Acipenser Schrenckii and Huso Dauricus sturgeon species that yield the Kristal caviar takes optimally 12 years.
Once the eggs of the female sturgeon are deemed to be mature (in terms of colour and size) following a biopsy, they are manually extracted, weighed, strained, washed, drained and, most importantly, salted.
“Unsalted eggs have no flavour; salt brings out the natural flavours of the fish roe and helps firm up the membrane,” says Macouin, explaining that the osmosis that occurs between the fish roe and the mineral salt “enhances the caviar’s flavour profile.” The true art of the caviar master, he says, lies in finding the perfect balance of salt - too little and the eggs quickly deteriorate; too much, and the eggs dry out and become sticky.
Once the eggs are salted, they are stored in the iconic blue tin called the ‘boite d’origine’, holding anywhere between 1kg to 1.8kg. As the tins are closed, they are placed under high air-pressure thereby ejecting excess liquid or air bubbles, ensuring optimal preservation of caviar grains. But Macouin cautions that, at this stage, they are “technically not caviar yet, just sturgeon eggs and salt.”
About two weeks after the salting stage, Kaviari’s purchasing team, led by founder Jacques Nebot, visits the farm and tastes each tin to finalise the selection. Only tins approved after tasting are stamped ‘Kaviari' and air-flown from China to Paris where caviar master Bruno Higos personally sees to the maturation of the sturgeon eggs through a process called refining.
“Like cheese and ham, the refining stage gives personality to the final product,” Macouin says, highlighting at the same time that Kaviari’s minimum ageing time is three months.
“During maturation, the tins of sturgeon eggs are chilled at an optimum temperature of minus three degrees celsius,” explains Macouin. ”They are turned every two weeks to ensure an even spread of oil and tasted by the caviar master every week.”
Macouin challenges those who do not believe in the value-add of maturation to taste raw sturgeon eggs. “They are crunchy, strong-tasting and plain without any flavour,” he says. “Adding salt protects the eggs from oxidation but only time - or maturation - will make the caviar fine and elegant.”