“Clench your fist” said John “and hold it upright”. A strange request in the middle of a farm in the countryside in the north of Italy? Or not. Next, his mother-of-pearl spoon dollops a small amount of caviar between our thumbs and index fingers and we are told to feel the temperature and shape, and observe the dimensions and colour. Only then, after it had warmed up a little to release the aroma, were we told to taste. One of life’s unforgettable experiences for me and also the guests from my cruise who accompanied me.
John Giovanni is an engaging and articulate advocate for the joys of caviar. It is an extraordinary story. His grandfather Alessandro was a trout farmer in the late 1940s. His twelfth of thirteen sons, John’s father, Giacinto built his own trout farm in the 1970s and had the inspiration to collect the last of the small sturgeons from the Italian fisherman of the Po, Ticino, Adige, Adda and other rivers. He acquired around 60 fish from different places and carefully grew and cared for them for more then 10-15 years until maturity. In 1988 he succeeded in spawning in captivity those fish and so saving from the extinction the Adriatic sturgeon (Acipenser naccarii). John was 18 and his brother Sergio only 10 but it made a lasting impression.
Gradually they developed the know-how and the technique of farming the larvae, the fingerlings and the adults of this native Adriatic sturgeon in captivity. In the early 90s they imported other species from the Caspian Sea and Black Sea and then at the end of the 90s he and Sergio determined to begin a caviar project.
The Storione Ticino Farm in Cassolnovo near Lake Maggione is about 50 minutes south-west of Milan, Italy. It is inside a unique environment, the Ticino Valley, a UNESCO biosphere reserve that became Ticino Natural Park in 1974. It is the largest sturgeon farm in Europe with around 35 hectares with about 6,000-8,000 litres per second of spring water and a live stock of fish of about 1,000 tons. It was built in the 1960s as a trout farm by the Mandelli family but Sergio and John joined as partners in 1998, to begin the caviar project. In mid-2007, the company Agroittica, a pioneer of producing the first farmed caviar, joined the plan too. Sergio is Managing director of Storione Ticino while John is a now one of the directors of Italian Caviar SRL, the exclusive partner which harvest, processes and sells the caviar. Together with Agroittica, Italian Caviar SRL produce about 25-30 tons of caviar which is 10-15% of the world quota.
Now Storione Ticino breeds four different pure sturgeon species from the first stages up to the maturation of the females for the production of the caviar. To prevent extinction, since 2008 it has been illegal globally to sell caviar from fish in the wild. In addition farms are licensed and caviar can be traced to prevent any attempts at deception with wild caught fish. Sturgeon farming takes pressure off endangered stocks and represents a valid alternative for caviar lovers worldwide.
Oscietra caviar is traditionally prepared from the roe of the pure Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii), one of the oldest species of fish in existence, native to the Black, Caspian and Azov Seas. It can weigh from 15-40kg in a 9-16 year ovulation cycle though they live 50 – 60 years. While 80% of the breeding at Storione Ticino is represented by this fish which produces Ars Italica Oscietra Caviar, 10% is the indigenous Italian species, Adriatic Sturgeon which has been rescued from extinction. These fish weigh from 20-50kg and take 10 – 16 years to produce Ars Italica Da Vinci caviar. The remainder of the production comes from Starry Sturgeon (Acipenser stellatus) which weigh from 7-20kg in a 8-14 year life cycle and produce Sevruga caviar. There are also albino Sterlet Sturgeon (Acipenser ruthenus) which weigh from 1-5 kg in a 5-12 year life cycle and from which they are beginning to produce golden caviar.
Beluga caviar is produced exclusively with the roe of the Huso huso species also called Great sturgeon or Beluga sturgeon, the largest fresh water fish and native to the Caspian, Black and Adriatic Seas. It is the rarest and therefore the most expensive as a female takes 16-25 years to reach maturity. Agroittica produces this caviar under the brand Calvisius Beluga.
However there are some 25 different sturgeon species in the world, with three native to Italy. Storione Ticino only breeds pure species, rather than hybrids which happens elsewhere to speed up the maturation process (such as in China). This also ensures biodiversity and sustainability. The Giovanni family is committed to the environment, preserving it, and passing on the knowledge to the next generation. John gets his sons involved, wanting them to understand but also enjoy the fish.
The Storione Ticino productions comply with the sustainable guidelines of the Ticino Park and its products are therefore branded “Controlled Production Ticino Park”. Independent assessment by an international certification body also determines if caviar production is sustainable. Ars Italica are so accredited by Friend of the Sea, a not-for-profit NGO, and is one of a very few farms in the world that has taken an active role in restocking the wild, native population of sturgeon in Italy. Since 1988 they have released on average 10,000 fingerlings per year into the Po River. They take care to release different ages and genetics into the river and work with the Padova university to keep biodiversity. This program is seeing great success with healthy mature females being identified 30 km from where they were released in May 2017.
The production cycle demands patience and is a long term business. Sturgeon release eggs only when they feel ready, late in their life cycle and won’t if they aren’t in right place. Some females are stripped when they are ready to spawn, their roe mixed with sperm and water and take 7-10 minutes to fertilise. Seven days later it is possible to see larvae which then eat the yolk sac. These are kept in fresh water tanks inside for protection and develop into fingerlings. Females grow faster and after about five years, the fish are separated into males and females. Males may be selected as breeding animals or slaughtered and sold fresh or smoked.
Females continue their growth, on average for another 5 years or more and are bred in fresh water outdoors in a natural seasonal environment. With Russian sturgeon when they get to their tenth year, 10% will be ready to harvest, and more will mature progressively over the next several years The eggs will be harvested six months before they are ready to spawn. The diet is controlled too to refine the flavour of the caviar. Therefore after about 10 years or longer, ultrasound helps assess when it is ready to kill for both flesh and caviar which will be about 10-15% of a body weight of around 30 kilos.
The fish are kept in big ponds with rock bottoms and fresh-flowing water, so they eat other naturally occurring shrimps, small fish and fresh clams. They are also fed twice a day and will jump for food. They are naturally clean when swimming as the movement of the water moves uneaten food out as does what they excrete which is then used on land. Marine salt is used for cleaning. They are an unusual fish as they have few bones inside rather cartilage and bone shields to form more of an external skeleton.
So while beluga may be considered the premium, James Bond and many others prefer Oscietra. The word Oscietra (asetra, osetra, oscietre) is the term which exclusively identifies the caviar from the roe of the Russian sturgeon. But such caviar is not only Russian or Iranian, as shown in works of art from the Italian Renaissance and earlier. Traditional techniques are used such as the Malossol method, which in Russian means “low salt content” and the caviar is graded according to the size of the grains, colour, texture and flavour.
The good news is that we can enjoy environmentally friendly sustainable caviar. It is awe-inspiring to understand the years, care and dedication which it takes to produce such a unique and special product.
Watch Inside Europe’s largest caviar farm above.
In Australia, the Ars Italica and Calvisius ranges are available at Simon Johnson and various restaurants.
In Hong Kong The Luxury Counter in the Great Food Hall, Unit 009, Level LG1, Pacific Place,
88 Queensway, Admiralty
Also available online https://www.calvisius.com/