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Tuesday, 5 December, 2000, 15:27 GMT
Who eats caviar?
caviar on ice
Caviar is no longer a regular on first class airline menus
With prices for caviar spiralling upwards, BBC News Online's Kamala Hayman asks: Is there anyone who still eats it?

Humans may have been eating caviar for thousands of years but for how much longer?

As stocks run dangerously low and prices skyrocket the once gourmet food is becoming an almost unobtainable luxury.

Russian shop
"Yes, we have no beluga"
These exclusive "black pearls", the pickled eggs of the sturgeon fish, cost up to 100 for a spoonful of the top beluga variety.

So who eats it? Who can afford it?

Airlines no longer serve it to first class passengers. The Queen does not serve it at her state banquets. Even the UK's top restaurants rarely offer it.

Among those that do is the Waterside Inn, in Bray, the country's only holder of three Michelin stars.

It is becoming more elitist as it becomes more expensive

Thierry Uldry
Caviar House
But at 210 for 50g of the top beluga it is not ordered often.

Manager Diego Masciaga says despite having 35,000 diners annually, caviar is served just four or five times.

"There are some people who are extravagant, who love caviar but very, very few."

Sales halved

Yet at one time it was so plentiful, American bars reportedly served as a free snack to make customers thirsty.

Pub bar
"A pint of mild, a packet of crisps and some free caviar"
Those days are long gone on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thierry Uldry, chief executive of the Geneva-based Caviar House which supplies restaurants and shops worldwide, said the amount of caviar eaten in the UK has nearly halved in 10 years.

Britons now carefully eat their way through just four tonnes a year. Switzerland, with one-tenth the population of the UK, swallows six tonnes annually.

Eaten by connoisseurs

The typical caviar customer has also changed.

"No longer do people buy it simply out of curiosity or to show off," says Mr Uldry.

Now it is eaten purely by connoisseurs.

"People willing to pay the right price for the pleasures of life, who enjoy expensive champagne, people prepared to pay a certain amount of money for a privileged moment.

"It is becoming more elitist as it becomes more expensive."

Despite this London department store Harrods is reporting healthy sales.

Harrods store
Caviar sales are up at Harrods
A spokeswoman said the store was selling more caviar now than 10 years ago, particularly at Christmas and New Year.

It charges 95 for 30g of beluga, or 739 for a 250g pot.

For the same size pots, Ocietra caviar is 49 and 370, and Sevruga caviar is 44 and 325.

Rising prices reflect its growing rarity.

Stuart Chapman, of the World Wide Fund for Nature, says the sturgeon catch has declined by 96% in 20 years and urged customers not to buy caviar on the black market.

"Christmas is a peak time of year for caviar consumption. Buy your caviar from a source you know is reputable and buy it in a sealed tin."

Caviar facts (source: Linda's Caviar Dictionary)
Made from eggs of three species of sturgeon
Beluga, the largest, produces top-grade caviar
Ocietra is the second largest
Sevruga produces smallest eggs
Caviar means 'cake of strength'
Sturgeon is a prehistoric dish
The Chinese originally made it from carp eggs
In 1966 the US Food and Drug Administration said caviar must come from sturgeon eggs

Legitimate or not, if you do buy caviar for a special Christmas gift - do not buy early. It only lasts a matter of days, and even then must be kept in the fridge.

So what is the alternative? A vegetarian version, made from seaweed, is expected to hit supermarket shelves in the next week.

Cavi*art is cheap, about 5 for a 100g pot, will last three years on your kitchen shelf, and its makers Finlay Foods, say it tastes and looks exactly like the real stuff.

And the best way to eat caviar? According to Waterside Inn manager Diego Masciaga: "Put it on top of your wrist and lick it off, that's how you taste caviar."

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See also:

05 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Sturgeon slump threat to caviar
03 Oct 00 | Europe
Poachers threaten caviar future
25 May 00 | Europe
Caspian crisis cuts caviar catch
08 Feb 00 | Europe
'Fowl' new caviar for the masses
22 May 98 | Analysis
Caviar politics in Dagestan
30 May 00 | UK
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