The festive season is fast approaching so what better reason to push the boat out and indulge a little. For some, Christmas means treating yourself to something like oysters and champagne but, surely, the height of indulgence is to partake in that most luxurious of dishes – caviar.
It’s a food that might be most easily associated with the jet set and wealthy.But what is less well known is that a small company on the outskirts of Brussels has earned itself an enviable reputation for producing some of the best caviar this side of the Caspian Sea.
That should not actually come as a surprise really because Caspian Tradition, a company based in Waterloo, also operates a “pisciculture”, a type of fish farm, on the banks of the Caspian Sea. The company has been run for almost 25 years by an Iranian-born couple, Ahmad Razavi and his wife Arya.
Their success story started back in the 1990s when Ahmad, a lawyer by training, came to Brussels to study for his PhD at ULB. Although his father, back in Iran, had some knowledge of caviar, Ahmad got involved in the business purely by accident.
“I was asked by a colleague at the university about caviar one day and that’s really when my interest first took hold,” he recalls. Having met Arya at university in Brussels, Ahmad launched what at the time was a very small scale operation buying in caviar and distributing it.
The company, essentially, is doing the same today, albeit from larger premises in Waterloo, but the scale of their activities has multiplied.
While Belgium is an important market – not least at Christmas and New Year – the company now exports its caviar all over the world. Ahmad explains how the business has evolved over the years, particularly since the fishing of wild sturgeon – the prehistoric fish from whose eggs caviar comes – was officially outlawed in 2009.
This was to ensure that the species, already designated endangered, did not become extinct. The ban on sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea has led to the development of aquaculture as an economically viable means of commercial caviar production.
The caviar produced at Ahmad and Arya’s company is farmed and meets the strictest quality standards which should not be surprising as the couple are on hand most of the time to oversee a multi-million-euro operation that employs 20 people with exports to over 70 countries.
This, as Ahmad explained, involves the scrupulous selection and preparation of the caviar from its country of origin to the point where it is treated, packed and labelled for distribution from the Waterloo workshop.
This attention to minute detail ensures, as he points out, a guarantee of the highest quality, further enhanced by the purchase of new equipment in 2012. Also worth pointing out that the couple place great emphasis on the traceability of their caviar.
In the past, the Caspian was the traditional source of the sturgeon but, nowadays, caviar can come from just about anywhere in the world, including China which is now churning out this delicacy on an industrial scale.
That is one reason why one tip, if you happen to buy caviar this Christmas (or any time) is to look for the country of origin and species on the back of the tin. The company has grown enormously since 1995: from occupying an area of just 500 sq metres back then it is now spread over 1,500 sq metres and produces some 12 tonnes of top quality caviar annually.
It has cleverly negotiated the 2009 ban by the development of farmed caviar. The quality is just as good but this means that this couple are playing their part in helping to protect and maintain this rarest and most precious of marine products. Their own Beluga caviar is the product of the so-called “pisciculture” tradition but, as well as their native Iran, they also handle caviar from other parts of the world.
Ahmad, now 60, and 50-year-old Ayra, are now training up their son Kyan with a view to him taking over the business eventually. But that’s for the future.
If you are thinking of that special treat this Christmas and New Year, why not consider caviar? If you do splash out on these tiny black pearls one top tip to remember is the “nose test.” This involves flattening a few of the grains on the back of your hand and then smelling the caviar (the best caviar doesn’t have a smell!). Serve it cold and consume quickly once opened.
Further info on Caspian Tradition is available here