Salmon caviar: What is it, exactly?

Yarra Valley Caviar produces several types of salmon and trout caviar

The start of winter is salmon milking season in Victoria. Yes, milking. It’s the humane method of harvesting roe from the fish. John Susman travelled to Yarra Valley Caviar to talk to co-owners Mark Fox and Nick Gorman about the unique local product, and milk the fish himself.

It’s freezing cold. I’m standing chest deep in a pond of 7ºC mountain water in an oversized pair of waders trying to wrangle slippery fish and perform what can only be described as the aquatic equivalent of a Cirque du Soleil move. It all feels like something out of Mr. Bean.

I’m at the Yarra Valley Caviar farm in the upper reaches of the Rubichon River, 150 kilometres east of Melbourne, where every Autumn an extraordinary ritual occurs.

In just a few short weeks, nearly 20,000 salmon and rainbow trout will be “milked” of their roe for the annual production of salmon caviar.

You may have seen these glowing orange pearls that pop in your mouth in restaurants around the country, perhaps in your own kitchen. You may know these fish eggs as salmon roe, but these in fact are caviar, meaning they have been cured in 2.5-3.5 per cent salt.

At Yarra Valley Caviar, the salmon roe is stripped from the females and converted to caviar within hours, using a blend of Olsson’s Salt specifically developed for the Yarra Valley cure. The caviar is then pasturised and snap frozen, preserving the quality and integrity of the final product.

But the process of extracting the roe from the live fish is art itself.

A firm grip on the tailfin and up she rises from the net, flaunting the speckled scales typical of a big healthy salmon.

Gently anaesthetised by clover oil, the fish doesn’t flinch. A few tender swipes of her swollen belly is all it takes to get the neon stream of roe shooting into the collecting colander.

Empty, she’s transferred into a recovery tank to rest, then released back into her pond of clear, icy mountain water.

It is this water that makes the farm, and indeed the resulting fish and caviar, unique. Salmon are anadromous, meaning they are born in freshwater but spend most of their lives in the sea, only returning to freshwater to spawn.

But as co-owners Mark Fox and Nick Gorman explain, due to the pristine environment and cold, oxygen-rich mountain water at the farm, the salmon can be grown year round in freshwater.

“If we didn’t have such pure water, the task of growing mature female fish for their roe would be almost impossible” Mark says, “Water quality, low stocking densities and a good food regime all combine to minimise stress, which results in the females producing abundant, high quality eggs.”

But keeping as natural a habitat as possible while growing production is as challenging as it is rewarding.

The process of extracting the eggs humanely has been a life-long challenge for Fox, who describes himself as “little bit of an anti-farmer”.

“In the '90s, they’d put compressed air into the belly of the fish to force eggs out,” he says. “They’d put the same needle into each fish, causing bacterial infections. And it was totally dangerous. They had lines of compressed air and if you weren’t holding on to it, this thing was like a viper flying around with a needle on it. I proved to them it was quicker and safer to milk by hand, with fewer mortalities.”

Along with gentle harvesting practices, Yarra Valley Caviar uses no germicides or antibiotics, and with well-dispersed stock, clean water is constantly cycled through the pools.

Keeping stock densities low promotes growth. Each fish weighs roughly five kilograms, with a potential yield of one kilogram of roe each season. The farm can continue to harvest roe from each fish for six to eight years.

Caviar, is simply the process of salt curing roe, and although it has mostly been beholden to the curing of sturgeon roe, the term is not exclusive, and has been readily adopted by Yarra Valley Caviar.

Although it is a simple process, the subtleties of managing the raw eggs, requires expertise that is developed over many years.
Testimony to the quality is the growing recognition and demand for Yarra Valley Salmon Caviar across China, Singapore, Europe and the US, which is home to the largest production of wild salmon roe.

Back in the pond I’m still freezing, but warm in the comfort that I have been part of this unique annual event, which produces one of the world’s most unique caviars.

This article was first published in foodservice's July 2019 issue. Read the digital magazine here.