A Thai-Russian duo have set up a sturgeon-breeding farm in the resort town of Hua-Hin, set to be Southeast Asia’s most reliable source of sustainable, high-grade caviar.
Alexey Tyutin remembers when the only caviar available in Thailand was smuggled into the country in tightly-wrapped, tightly-bound roles of bubble-wrap and t-shirts. Now, years later, and Tyutin—with partner Noppadon Khamsai—operate the Thai Sturgeon Farm Co. Ltd in Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan Province. Seeing an opportunity in Asia’s growing demand for caviar, the businessmen decided to build a sturgeon-breeding farm with the capacity of producing 1.5 tonnes of black caviar a year, selling within Thailand and across the Asian market.
Unfortunately, it is not as easy to breed sturgeon in simulated conditions as, for instance, salmon or carp. Sturgeon are susceptible to water pollution levels and rarely spawn in captivity. Despite existing for millions of years—dating back to the Triassic, some 245 million years ago—sturgeon are a reluctant, somewhat needy bunch.
What makes the Thai Sturgeon Farm an even more unique operation is the fact that the giant sturgeon are a cross-breed, a mix of Siberian and Osietra. The farm’s technology was developed by certified ichthyologists and engineers, including Dr Vasily Krasnoborodsko—the most well-known fish-breeding specialist in Russia—and uses new technology to help increase the endangered sturgeon population.
The team operates around-the-clock under highly scientific conditions, controlling everything from a particular feed from Denmark—they get through a whopping 63,000 kg annually—to water temperature and filtration, oxygen generators and even the use of cesarean equipment to check the progress of the egg build-up. Part of the on-hand, on-site team also includes Tyutin’s son, Alexander, who lives close to the farm.
Impressively, the farm also employs closed recirculation aquaculture systems that allow them to decrease electricity usage. The roof of the farm’s building, in which the sturgeon are housed, is lined with solar panels, resulting in 35 per cent of saved energy. The estimated cost of the entire operation is thought to be around US$3 million.
“Traditionally, caviar was taken from wild sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea,” Tyutin tells me. “Now, the fish is on the endangered species list and catching it for caviar is banned. So presently all caviar legally produced in the Russian Federation comes from fish farms.”
As a Russian, Tyutin has always had a profound obsession with caviar. The tiny pearls seem to hold a spell over many in Russia who, during the Soviet era, saw the country produce around 1,000 tonnes of black caviar a year. Now, with sturgeon over-fished and under threat, the whole world produces only 350 tonnes.
“When I was young I used to go to a shop that was full of caviar. They’d put it on the scales and pour in into containers. Back then, black caviar was very cheap,” recalls Tyutin.
One of the main outputs of the Thai Sturgeon Farm is actually less about the final product of caviar, and more about the sturgeon themselves. Caviar is a delicious and sort after byproduct, but what about the rest of the sturgeon?
The Oyster Bar is one of only a few restaurants in Bangkok that use the whole sturgeon, making use of the entire beast and offering a full nose-to-tail experience. “What makes the farm so unique”, says Billy Marinelli, a marine biologist and restauranteur behind The Oyster Bar, “is the closed system. It’s solar powered and organic, with minimum environmental impact. It is the first closed system, organic, solar powered fish farm in Thailand—that’s a major fist for any country.”
The idea of tackling a prehistoric sturgeon, skinning, deboning and slicing and dicing away at the flesh can be a daunting one. Sturgeon have an extended, spindle-shaped body structure and its skin is covered with bony plates running up and down the body in five rows. Perhaps it’s
A lack in education with many chefs preferring the flesh of other fish; however, the sturgeon’s body contains a significant amount of fat located between the muscles, and this inter-muscular layer of fat help to improve the taste of the meat.
Boiled cartilage can also be added to soups, and old Russian recipes would often use the cartilaginous skeletal rod of the sturgeon for the stuffing of pies. Indeed, Russia’s own Mrs Beeton, Elena Molohovets, in her book, Gift for Young Housewives, published in 1861, includes a recipe for Sturgeon & Salmon Pie.
The sturgeon industry, however, isn’t solely concentrated on consumption. A high-quality glue, a wine clarification tool and even beer, are all produced from the sturgeon swimming-bladder. Caviar is also used in the cosmetics industry, applied in the manufacturing of masks and creams to aid the stimulation of collagen and elastin. Yet, it’s the product’s culinary application that continues to fascinate and build momentum in Thailand.
Over the past few years, the demand for caviar has increased significantly despite it being considered a luxury product. Chefs are subverting the stereotype that it’s only for the superrich, and the likes of the Thai Sturgeon Farm and the Royal Project in Chang Mai are promoting the farming of sturgeon. Sure, there are gastronomic palaces, like Le Normandie and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, that make room on their menus for the by-the-ounce opulence with a modernist spin, but you’re just as likely to see caviar paired with potato chips, fries and fried chicken. Bunker in Sathorn serves black caviar on tater tots.
Sturgeon fishing and farming is a very profitable business compared to other fishery activities, often viewed as “gold-mining”. It is, however, a business of patience, waiting between seven to 11 years for females to reach the age of puberty.
To get 1.5 tonnes of black caviar, it is necessary to keep at least 29 tonnes of females. The Thai Sturgeon Farm started with 14 kilos of sturgeon and now has over 27.6 tonnes, all achieved at the surprisingly fast rate of only 28 months. “The design and science behind the farm are brilliant,” continues Billy. “They’ll be able to harvest the same fish for 10 or even 20 years.”
Aside from already selling sturgeon meat, caviar will eventually be offered to luxury restaurants, hotel chains and cruise ships. Black caviar will be sold by Tyutin and Khamsai under the label “Crown of the Russian Empire” with the two businessmen already importing caviar from partners’ farms in Russia and China under Caviar House Co. Ltd, which the two founded in 2015. Because of Thai import conditions—20 per cent due and 7 per cent VAT—the farm can guarantee that their caviar will be cheaper than imported while remaining at the same high level.
For those in Thailand with a ravenous appetite for caviar it’s a waiting game, but know that the “gold-mining” is well underway. Now, we wait.