For more than 50 years residents of Spain’s Granada province have known where to go for the finest fresh trout. They have flocked to the restaurants of Riofrío, a hamlet on the main highway between Granada and Málaga, to eat trout nurtured by a fish farm.
Trade is still brisk, but — unbeknown to most visitors — just a few metres away from the trout tanks a whole new industry has been created. While not abandoning the trout, the Piscifactoría de Sierra Nevada has invested in a big way in producing top-quality caviar.
It’s been a long process. It started in 1983 in a leafy valley where crystalline water gushes from a mountain spring. The first caviar (a mere 20 kilos) was not marketed until the year 2000. Demand from home and abroad has outpaced supply, but among the more than 400,000 sturgeon in Riofrío’s fish tanks thousands are nearing the age when their eggs can be harvested.
The Piscifactoría claims that it has more sturgeon than any other similar enterprise and that it is the only sturgeon nursery in the world employing a 100-per-cent certified ecological process. At tastings attended by international experts Riofrío caviar has come out ahead of better-known products from Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, poaching and pollution have reduced by 80 per cent the famed sturgeons in the Caspian Sea and stocks in Russia’s rivers are equally depleted.
Although caviar can be stored for up to six months in the correct refrigerated conditions, it is at its best when consumed within six days and the Sierra Nevada company prides itself on delivering fresh caviar fast. Twenty per cent of production goes for export, while the remainder is sold in Spain, chiefly to restaurants and shops.
The Sierra Nevada fish farm dates back 1956. It was founded by the Domezain family from Navarra and the initial aim was to produce trout to supplement infants’ diet — those were Spain’s hungry years. Business flourished. Sales soared and restaurants at Riofrío flourished.
In the early 1980s, however, trout sales slumped, partly due to intense competition from other fish farms. A rethink was necessary and the decision was made to try breeding sturgeon. It was a gamble which would require heavy investment and years of patient research.
In 1983 a dozen sturgeon for breeding were acquired from Italy. They were of the Acipenser naccarii species, native to southern Europe. Once this species thrived in the waters of the Río Guadalquivir. Indeed, the sturgeon is said to have inhabited this earth 250,000 years ago along with the dinosaurs. It was fished by Phoenicians and Romans.
Riofrío offered several important advantages for the establishment of a sturgeon fishery. First, an abundant supply of fresh, unpolluted water from a snow-fed acquifer beneath the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The water gushes from the rock at an ideal temperature for trout and sturgeon, between 13 and 16 degrees Centigrade all year around. And it emerges at a rate of between 2,000 to 3,000 litres a second.
Many years of breeding and research were needed before there was any return. Investigation into the characteristics of the naccarii species has involved Cádiz and Granada universities and Russian and Italian researchers. A shark-like fish with a toothless mouth and four feelers on the underside of its long snout, the sturgeon grows from egg to maturity at the Sierra Nevada fish farm.
The naccarii species does not produce caviar until it is 16 to 18 years old, twice as long as the Caspian Sea’s beluga sturgeon (Acipenser huso). Fourteen years passed before any sturgeon flesh, much in demand, could be marketed and only in 2000 was the first Riofrío caviar harvested.
Males are kept until they are 12, when they weigh around 15 kilos, and then sold for their flesh. Females enjoy more privileged treatment. Each one has a chip inserted with details of its age, diet and other details. It is then returned to the water until it is at least 16 years old and weighs 40 to 50 kilos. An ecograph and a biopsy determine if the optimum moment for removing eggs has arrived.
Under the auspices of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), Riofrío is collaborating with Iranians and Russians to help rebuild their sturgeon resources and introduce the latest technology.