Devon’s black gold: Exmoor Caviar

by Tom Shingler23 June 2017

In a sleepy corner of north Devon, this little caviar farm is bringing British provenance to one of the world’s most famous foods. Tom Shingler talks to Harry Ferguson about caviar farming, the importance of traceability and how it all came about.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

‘It’s easy to forget how expensive the stuff you’re working with is,’ says Harry Ferguson (or ‘Haviar’ to his customers), as he transfers scoops of caviar from one large can into lots of smaller ones. ‘Sometimes we see a caviar that seems cheap or good value when it still costs hundreds or even thousands of pounds a kilo.’ I’m standing with him in a refrigerated room in Battersea, terrified that he’s going to drop something whilst learning more about one of the UK’s most interesting products. He’s the director of Exmoor Caviar and London Fine Foods – which supplies all sorts of caviar and other high-end foodstuffs to the UK’s best chefs – and has been working with one of the world’s most expensive ingredients for years. Perhaps that explains his very relaxed attitude while handling the jet-black eggs.

Devon is probably the last place you’d think to find sturgeon roe – a food that instantly conjures up images of Russian oligarchs, grand dining rooms and the height of luxurious living. But ever since sturgeon fishing was banned in 1998 due to depleted stocks there have been farms springing up all over the world. They’re much more sustainable, offer full traceability and give the caviar a sense of provenance. Exmoor Caviar was the first of its kind in the UK, and since 2010 it’s been the go-to source for Michelin-starred chefs looking for something really special to put on their menu.

Setting up a caviar farm in the UK was a first for the company – CEO Ken Branning got the idea after talking to other caviar farmers in Europe, and saw no reason why he couldn’t do the same in Britain. But because sturgeon take over ten years to become mature enough to start producing roe, there’s a long time between setting up a farm and actually making any money from it. Instead, Ken found an ornamental fish farm in Devon, which already had mature sturgeon in its tanks, and struck a deal with them to start production. Exmoor Caviar was born.

Today, there are around 30,000 Siberian sturgeon swimming around in the tanks, which draw water directly from the River Mole. That may sound like a lot, but it’s quite small compared to larger-scale caviar farms in places like China. The fish are killed humanely and the roe is extracted by hand, before being preserved in Cornish sea salt and packed into tins. It’s a painstaking process that takes a lot of hard work, but the end result is one of the best caviars in the world.

Exmoor Caviar was set up by Ken Branning in 2010, and director Harry Ferguson supplies it to some of the UK's top restaurants
The caviar comes from sustainable sturgeon reared in tanks in Exmoor – the first of its kind in the UK

But it’s not just the taste of the product or the fact that it’s made in the UK that makes Exmoor Caviar such a success. Since the worldwide sturgeon fishing ban was introduced, a black market for wild caviar emerged. This causes all sorts of problems, both environmentally and by tarnishing the reputation of the caviar industry as a whole, which works hard to spread awareness of sustainable farms. ‘I can instantly tell if someone has a tin of illegal caviar by the way the eggs look,’ says Harry. ‘They’re either offered without any traceability whatsoever or just falsely labelled as coming from a sustainable source, which is a real problem, although it’s becoming less and less common.’ All farms adhere to rules set out by the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), which sees every single tin of caviar stamped with a special code which can tell you everything from the type of sturgeon the caviar has come from to the date it was produced and the farm’s location. Harry can read the code and check with the farm if he’s suspicious about anything.

Exmoor Caviar is a no-brainer for British chefs, who can wax lyrical about the provenance and story behind it. But it’s becoming more and more popular outside the UK, too, which is testament to just how good it tastes. It’s still not cheap – a 30g tin will set you back about £60 – but in terms of value for money, it’s up there with the best. And being able to serve little spoonfuls of the stuff to your friends whilst telling them it’s come from Devon rather than Russia, Iran or China is a sure-fire way to earn yourself some major foodie brownie points.

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