Mention China alongside almost any food product, and people get nervous. After international incidents involving bleach-soaked meat, antifreeze-laced apple juice, and pine nuts “unfit for human consumption,” the country “is known for tainted food because of repeated quality control scandals,” says Shaun Rein, managing director for the China Market Research Group.
Kaluga Queen, which produces its caviar about 483km south-west of Shanghai, is mindful of these associations.
“The biggest obstacle is the low trust of Chinese food safety,” says Lily Liu, marketing manager for parent company Hangzhou Qiandaohu Xunlong Sci-tech Co.
And yet after the first tin was shipped in 2006, Kaluga Queen quickly became the caviar of choice for 21 of the 26 Michelin three-starred restaurants in Paris, including Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee Hotel. Seafood specialist Eric Ripert serves it at Le Bernardin in New York. Lufthansa offers it in first-class cabins. The company’s sturgeon roe was even part of President Obama’s meal at the 2016 Group of 20 summit.
But because most consumers still associate Chinese brands with inexpensive knock-offs, the provenance of Kaluga Queen caviar is rarely mentioned. Alexandre Petrossian, vice-president of the namesake caviar purveyor, sells Kaluga Queen-sourced products at the company’s boutiques worldwide but doesn’t label the caviar as Chinese on its tins, where 30g can average US$150 (RM628.5).
“Chinese caviar was very hard to sell for the first three years,” he says. “It was difficult to convince people that it was not a cheap product. There is cheap Chinese caviar, but what we carry is one of the best on the market.”
Until recently, Russia and Iran dominated the caviar export market, harvesting the delectable eggs from beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea. Overfishing there eventually landed them on the endangered species list, and as supply dwindled, other nations, including Japan, Israel, and China, have started to fill the gap.
“Exports of Chinese caviar will boom because of sanctions and limited supplies from Iran and Russia,” Rein says. “Many restaurateurs will buy Chinese caviar because of good quality, reasonable price, and ample stock.” Kaluga Queen turns out 60 tonnes of caviar per year, making it the largest producer in the world, according to the company. It sells five kinds, but Petrossian’s bestseller is Huso Hybrid (US$210 for 30g), which comes from a hybrid of Kaluga and Amur sturgeon. The fish are raised in the Zhejiang province of China, where the Huangshan Mountains supply the man-made Qiandao Lake with fresh, cold water. Each sturgeon has an identification number, and each tin has a code, which customers can use to trace the fish’s colour as well as the results of its regular physicals.
Even so, Petrossian notes that his company takes multiple quality control trips each year: “We check the water, the fish. Anything that we get from China we make especially certain that it conforms to our standards.” At a tasting, the caviar proved exquisite. The large gray eggs have a softly saline taste and a terrific pop.
The list of top chefs buying Kaluga Queen continues to grow. At the new Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire in Shanghai, Kaluga’s product is featured in dishes such as a poached egg with Champagne sauce. Le Comptoir chef Romain Chapel says it “tastes more refined and pure compared with a lot of imported ones.”
But to find out where it’s from, guests still need to ask. — Bloomberg