Time to democratize caviar, says producer

PARIS Tue Nov 23, 2010 9:41am EST

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PARIS (Reuters) - For years caviar has been synonymous with Russian Tsars or Iran's Shah, but a leading French exporter is planning a revolution to bring the prized fish eggs to the masses.

Tracing its heritage back to 1872, Prunier House is best known for a quaint Paris restaurant lying off the Champs Elysees which welcomes a bustling crowd of politicians, film stars and celebrities into its listed building every day.

At the heart of its menu is a key ingredient: homemade caviar from a shoal of sturgeon reared for the last 20 years on the estuary of the picturesque Dordogne river, about 550 km (342 miles) southwest of the French capital.

Now, with wild sturgeon facing extinction and farmed caviar becoming more accepted, Prunier is ramping up its production of the gourmet food and cutting prices to target a wider market.

"We are trying to democratize caviar," Prunier's general manager Nicolas Barruyer, told Reuters in an interview.

"We want a younger and larger client base ... and just like diamonds or champagne, caviar is like bringing an exclamation mark to the happy moments in life."

Gone are the days of the Russian Tsar's traditional recipes preserved with salt and served with vodka or Iran's Shah demanding their neighbors share the fruits of the Caspian.

New techniques mean that caviar from farmed sturgeon can be kept for longer and has a less salty taste, broadening appeal.

Taken over in 2001 by Pierre Berge, the former president of fashion house Yves Saint Laurent, the company has slashed prices by 40 percent on its flagship product. Punters can now buy one of its signature brand 125 g (4.4 oz) tins for 185 euros ($254).

A snootiness surrounds farmed caviar, with many connoisseurs labeling it fake, but things have gradually changed since the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) put sturgeon on its list in 1998.

Overfishing and pollution have hit several types of sturgeon. Beluga numbers in the Caspian have fallen 90 percent since 1986, while Russian Osetra and Sevruga face extinction.

In 2006, CITES halted the global export of all wild caviar from sturgeon in the Caspian and Black Sea, which prompted prices of Iranian Osetra, the only legally sold wild caviar, to rocket. That created an opportunity for the farmed version.

"With new processes, less salt, it's much milder and easier to commercialize," Barruyer said.

GREY GOLD

With production of about five tones a year, Prunier's caviar costs about 1,480 euros per kg compared to wild Beluga which can set you back 12,000 euros per kg.

Dubbed "grey gold," caviar has been a fixture at Prunier since 1920's high-society when the son of the founder, Emile, set up processing centers where local sturgeon was caught.

Along with catching the wild fish, he imported the classic Sevruga, Osetra and Beluga to harvest eggs and start a French tradition to rival the Caspian's finest exports.

Most of France's wild sturgeon have died out, but the country's growing farming business has made it the world's second biggest exporter behind Iran and the biggest in Europe, shipping between 15 to 20 tones a year.

Prunier competes with the likes of Sturgeon, L'Esturgeonniere and Caviar de Gironde at home.

Prunier's Art Deco restaurant and its more affordable second branch on the Place de la Madeleine have slim profit margins. That has pushed Prunier to team up with bigger retailer Caviar House. Through it, Prunier's products are now available at 60 boutiques worldwide, but that is as far as it wants to go.

"If we have to be the little Gaullish village, then let's hope it's for as long as possible," Barruyer said.

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