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CONTRARY TO POPULAR belief, when it comes to caviar, buying the most expensive stuff doesn't mean it's the best quality in the market.
According to Cédric Paquet, commercial manager of artisan producer Royal Belgian Caviar (RBC), buying caviar involves knowing where the sturgeon came from, how the eggs are extracted, what they're fed and whether they are pasteurised or not.
One thing's for sure. It's almost impossible to find wild caviar from Russia or Iran, ever since overfishing and pollution turned freeswimming sturgeon into a highly-protected endangered species. Almost all caviar in the world market is farmed, which means it can be produced just about anywhere from Europe to Japan and China, with the latter being one of the biggest producers now, thanks to its quality and competitive pricing. Japan, too, is coming up as a producer of top quality - to be expected given its trademark obsession with craftsmanship.
In this equation sits RBC - a small scale operation which produced just five tonnes in 2018 and has recently entered the Singaporemarket by appointing fellow Belgian Emmanuel Stroobant of the one Michelinstarred restaurant Saint Pierre, as its ambassador.
Mr Paquet says that his company started out in the 1980s as a fish feed producer and subsequently branched out into sturgeon feed after working with European aquaculture centres to develop the best formula. Up till today the company still supplies to its caviar producing competitors.
At the time, the company also started to build up its own sturgeon farm, working with Russian and Iranian caviar masters who went to Belgium to teach them the old methods, ''so we're proud to say that we produce caviar according to tradition -fresh, not pasteurised and with less than 4 per cent salt''.
The small production is so they can focus on quality since all their caviar is produced to order. Unlike other producers, their caviar is packed directly into 30gm, 50gm or bigger tins according to specifications, and not transferred from a mother tin which degrades the eggs because of the exposure to air.
But how does it taste? From its entrylevel Gold Label Siberian sturgeon which is five years old to the grand dame 18-yearold Beluga, the caviar is distinctive for its pearlescent gleam and rounder eggs that seem almost separate from each other. For the Gold Label, there isn't any lingering smell at all and tastes mild, delicate and creamy with a Long finish.
The eight-year-old Platinum cross breed has slightly bigger pearls, a slightly more salty flavour because of the age, with a more pronounced flavour. It continues that way from Osietra (nine to 10 years) to the most exclusive Beluga with pearls at 3.5mm wide. ''We're the only ones who can achieve this size,'' says Mr Paquet. RBC is also one of the few in the world to produce albino caviar - clean-tasting yellow precious pearls.
In a blind taste test with other brands, the RBC differed in the way the individual pearls 'pop' in the mouth for a longer finish while the other specimens tend to merge without that satisfying burst. That said, temperature is key because once the caviar warms up, it's harder to tell them apart.
But whatever caviar you choose, the key lies in reading the label, which tells you where it's from, the breed of the fish and whether the eggs are pasteurised or not. And once you know all that, let your wallet and taste buds make the final decision.
For a taste of Royal Belgian Caviar in prime condition, check out Saint Pierre's special Caviar Menu priced at S$388 and featuring all five grades of caviar. For bookings call 6438-0887 or go to www.saintpierre.com.sg