Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lumpfish caviar. An ugly truth.

According to the United States Custom Service, ‘Caviar is the eggs or roe of sturgeon preserved with salt. It is prepared by removing the egg masses from freshly caught fish and passing them carefully through a fine-mesh screen to separate the eggs and remove extraneous bits of tissue and fat’.

Caviar is a textbook example of the way food exposes the gap between, and the intersection of, ethics and aesthetics. This can be summarised by the phrase: ‘it’s wrong, but it tastes so right’.

It’s not just that it comes from an endangered species* or that is has been periodically banned from importation (and hence illegal) in several countries or even that the roe is extracted by a process which can be described as involuntary-fish-abortion**. It is that caviar costs about £6000 / $US 10,000 per kilo***, which, to pick a country at random, is roughly equivalent to the average annual income of someone living in South Africa, home of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, or ten times the average annual income of someone in say, Nepal****.

Caviar is a nutritionally pointless food, used mainly as a garnish and status symbol. Pretty, shimmery, salty, food-bling.

The lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus), by most accounts, is not a pretty fish. “Benthic species dine upon sessile invertebrates and mollusks. Pelagic species target prey they are capable of overtaking, namely slow-moving jellyfish and ctenophores.”***** That is, they don’t really swim that well so they kind of just hang around sucking on the bottom of the ocean. They also don’t really have scales. Think of them as the marine equivalent of being directionless, balding and middle aged.

In their favour is where they fall in terms of sustainability. Whilst the statistics on biomass are sketchy, these are fish that eat low-ish on the food chain, and are caught in coastal waters, mostly by small fishing boats.

Enter the strange world of caviar substitution. Of course, fish other than sturgeon have salty, pop-in-the-mouth, shiny eggs. Affordable, visually stimulating and an easy addition to canapés.

By every measure, caviar is ethically questionable. But lumpfish caviar? Not so much - very clever and a little bit fancy – tiny little piles of coloured lumpfish caviar on fried potato rosti with sour-cream. I was going to buy smoked salmon, but the little jars of roe were the same price and would have the same sea-saltiness that matches so well with potatoes.

Once you get over the deep unattractiveness of the fish, the fact that their ovaries are essentially surgically removed (after death), the double processing (involving a doubling in production related transportation), the addition of artificial preservatives, additives, colourants, the high salt content and the fact that this, like caviar is an imported, nutritionally-valueless, flavourful garnish, lumpfish caviar is brilliant.

More honestly: the more I have explored the whole ‘caviar substitute’ concept the more dissatisfied I have become. Reading the label, I discovered emulsifiers and thickeners and preservatives, and of course, artificial black and red colouring. I don’t buy jam, for goodness sake, because of the added gelatin (what, pectin not good enough now?) or corn chips because of ‘anti-caking agents’ – what on earth was I buying the fish-egg equivalent for? And the food miles? It’s from the Atlantic, ie, the other side of the globe. The whole enterprise was clearly idiotic.

But more than this: I’m left with the feeling that I’m in buying into the whole tiny-sea-water-popping-spheres-is-cool-and-luxurious lie, and this becomes, I think, a validation of the inherent class distinctions involved in caviar consumption. Acceptance and desire for the obtainable emulation of caviar somehow reinforces and justifies the fuss – the legend – around caviar caviar.

And that is an ethical choice that no amount of culinary-glitter should obscure.

Next time I’ll buy half a dozen local fresh un-shucked oysters for about ten bucks.

* ie
** Note that I am pro-choice, but I am not sure that fish are able to exercise choice, and at any rate, I believe that the production of caviar occurs without sturgeon consultation. Weirdly, most sturgeon caviar production does not involve killing fish as the roe producing fish are far too valuable to kill. They do perform this kind of fish abortion – mostly surgical, but increasingly less invasive methods of roe-sack extraction are being used.
*** This is for beluga caviar, according to


The book by Jon Johannesson Lumpfish Caviar – From Vessel to Consumer (FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS Rome, 2006) is an excellent resource on lumpfish. Possibly the only such resource on lumpfish.

For information on sustainable seafood is great (if you’re in North America at least), and they also outline their ranking methodology, which can help you make decisions about species not on their list.

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