Anyone who’s ever traveled in the Swiss Alps will know that farming there is nothing new. Wherever you go, you will see doe-eyed, moleskin-brown cows grazing vertiginous, brilliant green, manicured hillsides, their fragrant milk destined for great wheels of hard mountain cheese. But fish farming? It sounds unlikely — a bit like salmon farming in the Yemen — but it’s true.
The story began with the Lötschberg rail tunnel, which enters the Alps at Frutigen in the heart of the Bernese Oberland and emerges the other side at Raron in the Valais.
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The tunnel is the latest example of the Swiss flair for engineering. As often happens when tunneling in the Alps, the project hit a few snags. Chief among these was the water runoff from rain and melting snow, which filters through the limestone layers to the tunnel below. Thanks to the geothermal effect, the water is warmed on its descent through the mountain to a rather comfortable 64 F. To channel it directly into the local river would have played havoc with the wild fish population, accustomed to an icy alpine torrent.
The solution came from engineer Peter Hufschmied, head of site management for the tunnel and a keen angler. Instead of expending energy in cooling down the water before allowing it to run off, why not take advantage of the warmth to raise fish? Simultaneously, they would use any surplus energy to heat greenhouses where tropical plants and fruits would grow. A perfect — and perfectly sustainable — solution.
The Tropenhaus in Frutigen was born, a pilot project was put in place in 2002, and by 2005 the first sturgeon were introduced. The original Swiss caviar, christened Oona (a word with Celtic roots suggesting “unique” or “extraordinary”), was harvested in the winter of 2011-12. Now leading Swiss chefs such as Heiko Nieder at the Dolder Grand in Zürich, Werner Rothen of Restaurant Schöngrün at the Paul Klee Centre in Bern, and Ivo Adam of Restaurant Seven in Ascona on Lake Maggiore can’t get enough of it.
At least 27 different sturgeon species are raised or fished for caviar. From these, the Tropenhaus chose the Siberian sturgeon, Acipenser baerii. It’s a strange and wonderful beast, light gray to brown in color with five rows of bony plates along its back and sides; an elongated, upturned snout; and a kind of four-pronged goatee beard. In captivity, the females of the species will mature at approximately 6 years of age, which makes them an economic proposition for farming. (Wild Siberian sturgeon needs at least 20 years to reach maturity.)
Once mature, the females are stunned and killed, the sac of roe is lifted out and set aside and the fish is deftly filleted. The fillets — firm, dense and devoid of bones — feature on the menus of the two on-site Tropenhaus restaurants and are also sold to restaurants and shops (including select branches of the Swiss retailer Coop, which is also the Tropenhaus’ main shareholder). Some fillets are sold fresh, others are smoked to create a delicacy not unlike smoked eel.
Harvesting roe for caviar a simple process
Considering the mystique surrounding caviar, the process for making it seems simple, at least as demonstrated by caviar-meister Tobias Felix. Clad in a hairnet, overalls, a plastic apron and white boots and equipped with surgical mask and latex gloves, he looks like a cross between an astronaut and a surgeon.
First, taking care not to damage the precious eggs, he gently coaxes and massages them through a wire mesh, leaving behind the membrane that surrounds them. Next, he rinses the eggs in cold water, drains them in a fine-meshed sieve and painstakingly picks out impurities with tweezers. At this stage, the eggs are a dull grayish-black; only when he adds the carefully calculated measure of salt will they take on their characteristic glossy sheen. The newly salted caviar is promptly transferred into custom-made tins, which are sealed hermetically. The entire process takes 15 minutes from start to finish.
For the final step, the tin is embedded in a sleek, black sphere, which in turn is enclosed in a solid chunk of glass resembling an ice cube, made at the Hergiswil glass factory on Lace Lucerne, an ultra-chic piece of packaging that won a coveted Red Dot Design award in 2012.
The likelihood of Swiss caviar coming to a table anywhere near you is probably slim. “The quantities are tiny (production in the first year was around 300 kilograms, 700 pounds) and for the moment we are focusing just on Switzerland,” admits marketing manager Andreas Schmid. But there are ambitious plans afoot: Production is set to increase tenfold, and then they will consider the export market.
Even farmed, Swiss caviar will never be cheap; that’s at least part of its mystique. (Thirty grams or 1 ounce of Oona costs 144 Swiss francs, or $155 U.S.) But now that caviar from wild fish is out of bounds due to a disastrous combination of damming, overfishing, pollution and poaching, farmed caviar is increasingly meeting demand for this prized product. Sturgeon is already raised on fish farms all over the world, from France, Spain and Italy to Russia, China, Canada and the United States.
Now Switzerland has joined the ranks.
Top photo: A spoonful of Oona caviar. Credit: Tropenhaus Frutigen