The word caviar conjures up numerous images. That most iconic of luxury foodstuffs is a status symbol, enjoyed by the spoonful by those who still dress for dinner or by the rest of us on very tiny canapés usually on top of a flake of smoked salmon and some cream cheese. What it doesn’t conjure up is a series of polytunnels built on the site of a redundant mushroom farm on that largely anonymous stretch of land between York and Leeds.
However, it’s in these unglamorous surroundings that father and son John and Mark Addey have been quietly masterminding what they hope might turn out to be something of a revolution in the caviar business.
“It has been a bit of a steep learning curve,” says Mark, who was a civil engineer before a change in family circumstances meant he wanted a job where he could work fewer hours and be closer to home to look after his daughter. “I’ve always been a keen fisherman, so thought I’d have a go at getting some sturgeon and seeing if we could start producing Yorkshire’s first ever caviar.”
To most people that would have been a leap in the dark too far, but Mark and John made life even more difficult for themselves by deciding that their caviar business would be entirely sustainable.
While the black stuff might not have the same ethical issues as foie gras or shark fin soup, it has had something of a chequered past. Traditionally caviar comes from the Caspian Sea and historically the only way to harvest the precious roe eggs involved killing the sturgeon. Eventually that method ended up decimating populations of the fish and when sturgeon were officially classed as an endangered species it fell off the menu.
“Sturgeon have thrived around the world for close to 250m years, but today most of the 27 species are now on the critical list,” says John. “In 2008, as the stocks in the Caspian Sea had fallen by 90 per cent on previous levels, sturgeon were given special protection.
“It did lead to major advances in fish farming methods and now there are more than 100 caviar farms around the world. But even so three million farmed sturgeon are still needlessly killed each year.”
Necessity, however, has proved to be the mother of invention and a few years ago a German scientist came up with a ‘no kill’ method which the Addey family is now using under licence.
“I am not sure why there hasn’t been a public outcry around caviar like there has been around foie gras or veal,” says John. “When we were doing our research before setting up our business we visited a number of caviar farms and the way they treated the fish was pretty brutal.
“Essentially the fish are hit on the head, then the underside of the fish is cut right down the middle and the roe is scooped out. We thought there had to be a better way and there is.”
Much like any other farm, the sturgeon at KC Caviar are housed in large tanks which replicate the seasons in terms of water temperature. Over the course of a year the fish are moved between the tanks and once ready, Mark has the job of massaging the eggs out of each sturgeon. Yes, that’s right, massage.
“We do it on this table here,” says Mark armed with a stuffed sturgeon used for demonstrations only. “Once we think they are ready we will double check by using the ultrasound.”
This bit of kit is exactly the same as the one used to scan pregnant women, the only addition being that at KC Caviar it now has a setting specifically for fish.
“All our fish go through their natural egg production cycle which culminates in controlled ovulation. It means that neither the eggs nor the fish are harmed in anyway, unlike forced stripping,” adds Mark.
“Once the eggs have been removed the fish is then returned to the recovery room and will eventually rejoin the others. The process can be repeated for many years, but when a fish is ready to retire that’s exactly what happens, they retire.
“Some companies market their caviar as ‘no kill’ because they perform a caesarean- type operation which enables them to extract the caviar while the sturgeon is still alive. However, even though the stomach is stitched back together and the fish is released back into water they often die from the damage done to their internal organs.”
Once the eggs are removed – a 10kg fish will generally produce 1kg of roe – at KC Caviar, it’s the start of a military operation. Passed through a hatch into the processing room, the eggs are washed in Yorkshire spring water. They are then bathed in what John describes as a “secret product” before being stored in air tight containers.
“When they are first sealed the caviar has about a nine-month shelf-life, but as soon as the seal is broken, you have about 48 hours to eat it. Mark isn’t much of a fan of the stuff, so if we do end up opening tins as samples for people to try whatever is left tends to end up in my fridge,” says John.
While the Addeys may have done the hard work in building a caviar farm from scratch, the biggest hurdle has been getting it out to market. “We gave some to Rosemary Shrager, she loved it. In fact, every chef we have taken it to has said it’s some of the best caviar that they have ever tasted,” says John. “The next step for us is getting our name out there.
“Because caviar is so expensive and because once you open it you basically have to use it, restaurants will only buy in small quantities. Some caviar can become mush when you put it in your mouth, but ours really holds together and it has a real taste of the sea.”
While they aren’t yet in a position to reveal details, John says they have recently secured a deal to provide a nationwide supermarket and their mission for the next 12 months is to get their brand of caviar mentioned in the same breath as famous names like Gourmanoff.
“We know we have a great product,” adds John. “We always knew that coming into a historic industry like the caviar business was going to be hard. But we also knew that if we could get it right then we could be really on to something.
“Because of the way we harvest the eggs, our product is a little more expensive than the average caviar with a 10g tin costing £49.99 and 30g retailing at £94.90. What we have here is really special and now we just need to let more people know about it.”