How Sustainable Delicacies Like Farmed Caviar are Inspiring Singapore's Top Chefs
The eternal shortcoming of humankind is how we unfailingly manage to deplete the earth of the things we love—such as caviar. The onyx-hued salt-cured eggs of the sturgeon have been coveted as decadent delicacies across centuries and cultures, and the hedonists among us have indulged in their briny splendour until wild sturgeons now teeter on the brink of extinction.
The fortitude of humankind, though, is our resourcefulness. Where there’s an appetite, there’s a way. Thus, to ensure that caviar remains a sustainable indulgence, an emerging number of caviar farmers have surfaced, reshaping caviar aquaculture and its production.
Caviar today has changed dramatically. Controlled production has meant that it now comes in myriad varieties, as producers cross-breed sturgeon species to yield roe with a multitude of complex characteristics. With these new dimensions to an age-old ingredient, chefs are thus able to flex more creativity when using them far beyond the traditional presentation of caviar and blinis.
Caviar’s uses today revolve around each variety’s nuances. “For instance, Baeri caviar is generally a little saltier in flavour, but that’s followed by a creamy finish,” says the chef-owner of Saint Pierre, Emmanuel Stroobant. “The texture of the eggs is a little harder. I like to use this caviar as a ‘supplement’. If I have a beautiful sweet langoustine and need to heighten its flavour, I’m happy to use Baeri, because my focus is on the langoustine. The caviar helps me create what I’m looking for. But if I use Oscietra caviar, then the caviar is the product that I want to showcase. I would then pair it with a milder product like cream, bone marrow or beef fat to allow the caviar to shine.”
Close to the source
The ability to forge partnerships and get up close with the ingredient’s production also means that chefs glean a better understanding of it. “As I understand it better, so does my creativity in using caviar in my cooking (grow),” says Denis Lucchi, the resident chef of Italian fine-dining staple Buona Terra. He works with Calvisius caviar, which is farmed in Italy’s Po Valley, close to his hometown of Lombardy. His affinity with the region and Calvisius’ sustainable farming philosophy were deciding factors when he formed a partnership with them. “This gives me the opportunity to learn first-hand and discover the distinctive profiles of the different caviars from different sturgeons,” he explains.
One of his signature dishes is a scallop tartare marinated with coriander, lime and shallots, and crowned with a generous serving of Imperial Ossetra caviar. Servers finish the dish at the table by drizzling it with fermented tomato water. The concoction is a study in the fine balance between varying degrees of brininess, with the scallops’ sweet seaside flavour intensified by the gentle saltiness of the caviar, and the refreshing tomato water brightening the mix with its subtle acidity and umami.
Why less is more
The caviar of choice for Steve Allen, the former executive chef of Pollen, is the Kaluga Hybrid caviar from homegrown producers Caviar Colony. “It has a clean taste and is less fishy than regular caviar, which makes it more versatile— therefore, we can use it in more dishes,” he says. “We’ve even used it in a dessert where it’s served with Valrhona Guanaja 70 per cent chocolate mousse and hazelnut sable. In the past, we used to finish this dessert with rock salt, so we replaced the salt with caviar; it goes together really well and doesn’t taste weird at all.”
That said, where other chefs have gotten more creative with their use of the prestigious roe, Allen finds himself going back to basics. “I have a mantra that I follow: ‘The better the product, the less you have to do with it.’ I think when you spend so much on an ingredient, it’s not what the caviar can do for the dish, but what the dish can do for the caviar.” To that end, his signature dish comprises gleaming globules of Kaluga Hybrid caviar served with a silky pea panna cotta, fresh Scottish crab and crab toast. “It’s three simple ingredients, in season, so nothing much is needed to make each ingredient stand out,” he explains.
Both Stroobant and Lucchi agree that despite the ever-more creative ways with which to use the abundant variants of caviar today, the traditional ways of tasting them neat from the back of a hand or atop supple blinis with sour cream remain the optimum manner to enjoy the delicacy. “Classic is always a good way to go,” says Stroobant. “Especially if you’re eating it at home.”