Few states do superlatives quite like the Emirates. Highest this, biggest that. There was even a press release doing the rounds for a while about the world’s tallest pyramid of Airwick air fresheners being assembled in a supermarket just off Sheikh Zayed Road. But Abu Dhabi now holds the curious honour of having the world’s largest operating caviar facility. Despite sitting on vast oil reserves, the UAE capital is looking to tap into the market for the other, very lucrative black stuff.
The Royal Caviar Company (TRCC) opened earlier this month and is owned by Bin Salem Holding, a family-run operation with a hefty portfolio spanning defence and education through to Arabesque cafés and, now, pisciculture. Robert Harper, the group’s commercial director, believes that the facility will be running at full capacity in 2015. “By then, we will be producing 35 tonnes of caviar a year,” says Harper, who puts local demand alone for the sturgeon roe around 14 tonnes per annum. “In other production facilities, you’re looking at only three or four harvests a year, but we will have a constant and repeatable supply on a monthly basis.”
In 2006, the UN put a ban on export of wild Caspian Sea sturgeon eggs. This, sadly, has done little to hamper the steady disappearance of the fish. While the price on caviar rises, ignominious poaching continues that prevents eggs from hatching and topping up the population. “There’s quite a black market of caviar,” says Harper, noting that farm-growing sturgeon remains on a pretty small scale elsewhere.
So TRCC’s main sell is its sustainability: a brood stock of sturgeon sourced from Europe is already swimming around in the facility and this will be used to perpetuate further generations, and their money-spinning offspring, in the future. While the scale of operations takes some of the pressure off traditional harvest centres, the non-intensive, ultra-hygienic process creates a caviar that is, Harper claims, unique for its lack of fishy odour.
Yet the tag of Iranian and Russian beluga roe still has a certain panache about it among caviar aficionados. As Ivana Milicevic of the Caviar House & Prunier in Dubai notes, even the best beluga needs a back story. “It’s not just about eating caviar, there’s a whole history to it – like wine tasting. That’s very important when you’re selling expensive food.”
But perhaps the story here is Abu Dhabi itself. In engineering this city, the motto has often seemed to be: build for the extravagant and the extravagant will come. Getting stuck into caviar, then, seems like an almost logical conclusion.
Although this new output is going to put more caviar on the market, Harper is very clear about where the stuff is headed. “We want it to be available on a regular, wider basis but we want to maintain its elite status,” he says. And there’s nothing fishy about that.