Baygorria, Uruguay: Under the grey waters of a lake in deepest Uruguay lurks a slimy treasure.
While many farmers here labour to produce the country’s famed beef and soya, one small company has turned its hand to a seemingly most un-Uruguayan product: caviar.
Cutting tiny eggs from sturgeon fish bellies to sell for thousands of dollars a kilogram (two pounds), workers at Black River Caviar are putting this small South American nation on the world’s gourmet map.
The family firm’s chief Roman Alcalde says he’s proud of the foresight that led his father to set up the farm in the 1990s, when overfishing on the Caspian Sea was causing the traditional caviar industry to dry up.
“He said, ‘Right, we are going to do the unthinkable. We are going to make caviar in Uruguay.’”
Since then, the remote fish farm and its 40 staff have single-handedly led Uruguay’s production of more tonnes of caviar, or sturgeon roe, per head of population than any other country on Earth.
Alcalde’s father previously ran a shipping company in the capital Montevideo that supplied Russian fishing boats.
The Russians told him green, wet Uruguay had an ideal climate for raising sturgeon, like the famed wild Caspian fish of their homeland.
“They mentioned it so often that we ended up doing a feasibility study,” Alcalde says.
His family started breeding the fish in the mid-1990s and began exporting caviar in 2000, just when plummeting Caspian production was prompting prices to soar.
Still, the first seven years were full of uncertainty, Alcalde says.
“Would the product would be of good quality? Would the market acknowledge Uruguay as a source of caviar?”
Since then, Black River Caviar has become the biggest sturgeon farm in the Southern hemisphere, accounting for all Uruguay’s caviar exports.
Uruguay was the world’s eighth-biggest caviar producer last year, selling seven tonnes, according to the Federation of European Aquaculture Producers.
That paled in comparison to the 70 tonnes churned out by number-one producer China.
But it’s not bad for a country with a population of just 3.4 million: about two grams of caviar for every man, woman and child in the country.
It’s not they who are gobbling most of the salty, fishy delight, however.
It is rich foreigners.
Daniel Conijeski, the manager in charge of the firm’s production process, says Uruguay’s moderate climate has an optimal average temperature for breeding sturgeon.
“But Uruguay is not a caviar market,” he says. “Our company exports to the world, to some very demanding markets: Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, Asia.”
“That is a challenge ... to position our caviar and our brand in the best markets.”
The company also ships smaller quantities to the Middle East, Australia and Uruguay’s neighbouring South American countries, in pots labelled “Proudly produced in Uruguay.”
A kilo of prime gold-coloured caviar fetches $4,000, Alcalde says. The tonnes of roe bring the company around $5 million a year.
The company’s success is no accident.
Black River caviar is “very well regarded” in blind tests, says Philippe Chauvin, the firm’s representative in Europe and founder of the Comptoir du Caviar, a specialist shop in Paris.
“It is the closest you can get to the taste of wild caviar,” the eggs of free-roaming sturgeon, whose fishing is banned for conservation purposes.
He attributes the product’s exceptional quality to the steady flow of water through breeding tanks in the sleepy village of Baygorria.
It comes from the Black River’s calm waters, which run through the farm in Baygorria, in and out of the reservoir some 270 kilometres (170 miles) from the capital Montevideo.
“They don’t have to pay for a filter system,” Chauvin says. “Where they are, three hours’ drive from Montevideo, there is no industry and no pollution.”
Swimming around in six-meter iron cages, the sturgeon quietly get fatter.
Caviar-bearing female sturgeon spend seven to 10 years growing to full size.
When the time is right, they are fished out and dispatched with a knock to the head.
Workers cut the fish bellies open and pull out their egg sacs.
Alcalde, a trained “caviar master,” tastes the goods. He rinses them and adds salt to drain out the water and harden the tiny eggs.
The firm started out using Siberian osetra sturgeon and is now also breeding beluga, the species that yields the world’s most coveted caviar.
The fish farmers are patiently waiting for their beluga to mature and start producing eggs.
Black River aims to raise production to 10 tonnes in 2018.
Although consumers still find the idea of Uruguayan caviar surprising, Chauvin says, the prospects are good.
Unlike caviar from China, which “makes people think it’s dodgy,” he says, “Uruguay is easier to sell.”