I am eating glossy beads of black caviar from my hand, licking the minerally, salty, fishy oil from my skin. I am sipping champagne and slugging back icy-cold vodka. Is it Melbourne Cup time, or what?
It certainly is, says caviar ambassador Lisa Downs of Simon Johnson, Australia’s largest caviar importer, who is knee deep in the stuff. If she’s not organising bespoke master classes in caviar tasting such as the one I am enjoying probably a little too much, she’s training up The Caviar Girls, a posse of black-gloved Brave Management models in little black dresses bearing tins of caviar on cigarette-like trays for comparative tastings.
Tis the season, too, for stand-alone caviar bars, with 1kg tins of the stuff slathered on hot little blinis (think food trucks, for people who would have no idea what a food truck was). Downs is also supplying the right stuff to the Black Caviar restaurant at Caulfield, run by top Melbourne chef Ian Curley of The European and French Saloon. Small wonder that Simon Johnson Quality Foods has imported 1.5 tonnes of sturgeon caviar so far this year, an increase of 220 per cent in the past two years.
But now that the filly season is here, caviar is taking off faster than that gorgeous mare Black Caviar in her 25 consecutive wins from 2009 to 2013. When Racing NSW threw a record-breaking $10 million prize money at The Everest, the new big-bucks October 14 event of Randwick’s Spring Racing Carnival, caviar led the field. For the inaugural Everest Dinner that preceded the race, the Australian Turf Club’s executive chef, George Mullen, used about 1.5kg of oscietra caviar.
“We go through kilograms of caviar through the whole season,” he says. “It’s part of the wow factor, and allows us to show people we can do so much more than sell pies on race day.”
Seafood staple diet of members
Scots-born Mullen has seen a few changes in luxury foods since starting at Royal Randwick Racecourse as a casual chef 23 years ago.
“In those days, it was all about buffets of hundreds of kilograms of prawns and oysters. Now it’s marron, Hiramasa kingfish and caviar. Seafood has always been the staple diet of our members.”
Caulfield’s Melbourne Racing Club is coming up on the outside, however, with an increased budget this year for this most luxurious of ingredients.
“We like to use opulent ingredients to set us apart from the others,” explains executive chef Julian Robertshaw. “Diners are so much more informed nowadays and know what they should get for their hard-earned money.”
Hence chef Curley is dealing out the caviar at Caulfield’s Black Caviar restaurant like there’s no tomorrow.
“I serve salmon and trout caviars, smoked and unsmoked, as well as black caviar,” he says. “I’m a big fan of Yarra Valley salmon caviar. It’s full-flavoured, and I like the sustainability aspect.”
In Sydney, the Finger Wharf’s Otto chef Richard Ptacnik sees a big increase in demand during the racing season. “People are wanting to celebrate and are happy to pay for something special like caviar,” he says.
For guests of Otto’s $195 Charles Heidsieck Champagne Luncheon on Cup Day, there will be Black Pearl Siberian oscietra caviar on house-made brioche with crème fraiche. “But they can always buy it by the tin if they like,” he offers.
The Gold Coast’s quirky designer resort QT is going suitably avant-garde on Cup Day, offering paid-up punters the chance to sabrage (decapitate with a sabre, or sword) a chilled bottle of G.H. Mumm Champagne. “Our guests on the day can also make their own caviar blini from a 1kg ‘mother tin’ on ice at a caviar bar tended by a Black Pearl Caviar hostess” says QT’s food and beverage director David Clifton.
New lease of life
Beyond the racetrack, caviar has a new lease of life as restaurants once again offer the sort of full caviar service reminiscent of 1980s excess, prompting some to wonder if shoulder-pads, ostentatious handbags and big hair are due for a comeback too.
“It’s different now,” says Downs. “Then, several species of sturgeons were on the endangered list, which led to the worldwide ban on exports from the Caspian Sea in 2008. Now, 96 per cent of all caviar comes from farmed sturgeons.”
The caviar renaissance means that Downs is also working with a whole new generation of chefs, who approach it in vastly different ways to their predecessors.
Lennox Hastie, chef of Australia’s only fully wood-fuelled restaurant Firedoor, has experimented with smoking the delicate eggs. The recipe in his first cookbook, Finding Fire, to be released November 1, calls for unsalted beluga, fresh seaweed and apple wood embers.
“We grill a small mound of caviar over apple wood until it is warm and slightly smoky,” he says, “It retains that characteristic pop in the mouth, releasing a rich flavour of the sea with nuances of black olives and hazelnuts.”
Martin Benn, chef of Sydney’s creatively driven three-hatted Sepia, is drawn to caviar’s old-time glamour but believes it belongs in a “new age” of luxury ingredients.
“Caviar is the ultimate extravagance,” he says. “I really wanted a new generation of diners to experience this amazing wonder of the world in a modern way, so I have never added a surcharge or supplement for it.”
Benn says the seachange was in 2014, when a new order of caviar producers such as Yasa from Dubai started bringing unpasteurised Siberian sturgeon caviar into Australia within 24 hours of harvest, year round. He puts it to good use with rich, fatty ingredients such as toro (tuna belly), fried potato and bone marrow.
“When using caviar in a dish you have to be smart and use it in ways that the guest gets to see it and appreciate it,” he says. “That one bite always leaves you wanting more.”
Looking at the distinct lack of caviar glistening on my bare hand, it’s hard to disagree.
How to eat it
Here’s what to do with your little can of joyballs.
- Eat from the tin It might sound gross, but it’s the best way to get the pure, full-on, briny, mouth-filling, joyous experience.
- Keep caviar refrigerated but allow it to come up to blood temperature before eating, to allow the flavour to develop.
- Use a mother-of-pearl spoon Metal can react with the caviar and change the taste. Changing the taste is not what you have paid for.
- Use your hands Place a spoonful of caviar in the crook of your hand between thumb and forefinger and allow it to rise to ambient temperature. Raise to your nose and inhale, then take it into your mouth, rolling it gently across your tongue. Allow the caviar to melt like butter, then draw in a breath of air and take in the rich, minerally, sea-salty, taste of the ocean.
- Be gentle Do not crush or burst the tiny beads before they hit your tongue. Caviar is not avocado, and should not be smashed.
- Value-add When you’ve had enough caviar straight-up, consider slathering the rest on hot buttered sourdough toast, on potato crisps, creamy scrambled eggs, warm buckwheat blinis or buttered, boiled potatoes. Crème fraiche and diced egg white and yolk are good, neutral-flavour carriers.
- Don’t smother it Don’t squeeze lemon juice on top (it will cook the caviar) or serve with finely diced onion (too overpowering).
- Skip the pinot noir Serve caviar with champagne or sparkling wine, icy-cold vodka or icy-cold sake.
- Explore the rainbow Not all caviar is black. Look for the bright iridescent sea-blue of Shark Bay’s wild scampi caviar, hand-harvested from November to March off Australia’s north-west coast; the fluorescent orange of Yarra Valley Salmon Caviar; and the shimmering gold of Yarra Valley’s Golden Brook Trout Caviar.