Madagascar is widely known for its vanilla and cocoa exports, two of the most important ingredients in creating the world’s favorite confectionaries. Now, the island is venturing into the production of the world’s top luxury food caviar. One of the world’s rarest and most sought after luxury foods; caviar requires specific fish species grown in optimum physical conditions and goes through a very delicate production process, making it of high value. The top producers in the world right now are China, Italy, and the United States.
About Food Caviar & Rova Caviar
A vision 10 years in the making, Rova Caviar established a sturgeon farm in Madagascar in 2013. Now, the island nation is the first in Africa to produce and export food caviar. Farming began with sturgeon eggs imported from Russia in 2013, but the first grams of caviar went on sale on June 26, 2017, on Madagascar’s independence day.
Three French entrepreneurs set up the farm. Today, they produce Rova Caviar with 300 tonnes of fish from 6 different sturgeon species.
The unusual plan is the brainchild of Dabezies, her husband Christophe, and their partner Alexandre Guerrier, French entrepreneur based in Madagascar.
Delphyne Dabezies is the CEO of Rova caviar.
“The day we produced the first food caviar in Madagascar was a real relief because in the southern hemisphere, as I said, there are few farms. The second point is that no one had tried the experiment before, to produce sturgeons in Madagascar, we could have had bad caviar; we were not sure. So when we saw that the product was excellent and that Malagasy terroir really managed to transmit this level of excellence into the product, it was a great relief”, Dabezies said.
“A lot of people laughed at us,” says Delphyne Dabezies, the head of Rova Caviar, admitting that the enterprise was a big gamble.
“But we took the time to prove that this is serious. Madagascar caviar is now the only caviar produced in Africa and the Indian Ocean.”
Rova Caviar keeps their sturgeon in Lake Mantasoa, which sits at an altitude of 1,400 metres. The lake is fed purely by rainwater, far away from any industrial activities. The fish are also fed with organic, locally made food. The region’s warm water, coupled with the purely organic keeping, provides optimum conditions for the fish and their eggs to grow while limiting the farm’s environmental footprint. Dedicated to having minimal impact on the environment, the farm’s entire process is self-sufficient, from making their own fish food processing their own waste.
Rova currently breeds five different sturgeons: the Baeri, Gueldenstaedtil sturgeon, the Huso Huso sturgeon, the bare-bellied sturgeon – a new species raised strictly for its caviar- and the Persicus sturgeon; the source of Iranian food caviar. Rova’s efforts in farming the Persicus sturgeon were officially acknowledged by the Iranian Agriculture Minister visiting the site in December 2017. Currently, only Baeri caviar is available. The world will have to wait a few more years to taste the remaining success of the island.
Last year, the operation produced one tonne of food caviar While this may seem like a tiny number compared to the 340 tonnes produced every year worldwide, but Rova hopes to increase production four times in the coming year. Prices start from about $144 per 100 grams, far cheaper than European caviar, without compromising the quality.
Rova currently sells its food caviarto Madagascar’s top restaurants and exports to Mauritius, Seychelles, and Reunion’s neighboring islands. The region’s top chefs like Michael Scioli and Nizam Peeroo are already creating signature dishes with the continent’s first caviar.
“At the time, our business in luxury ready-to-wear clothes had become sustainable, and we were seeking to diversify our activities,” Dabezies said.
“We are all gourmands, so this idea served our purposes. “Madagascar has an exceptional environment that produces rare crops such as cocoa, vanilla, organic shrimp, and lychees. We thought we could add caviar.”
The sturgeon that produces unfertilised food caviar roe are kept in Lake Mantasoa, perched at an altitude of 1,400 metres (46,000 feet) east of Antananarivo. Training the staff has been a major part of the project.
Staff member Say Sahemsa, wearing white boots, tells AFP: “You have to take care of the spawn and avoid giving them too much or not enough food, to have the lowest possible mortality rate.”
Sturgeon is imported from Russia in fertilised eggs, which hatch in a special nursery facility in Mantasoa.
When they reach seven grams (a quarter of an ounce), they are moved to freshwater ponds and then into large cages in the lake when they weigh 500 grams (around a pound). At 1.5 kilogrammes, the males are killed, and only the females are kept until their eggs are ready.
Colour, taste, and smell
The process demands patience and skill. The first imported eggs arrived in Mantasoa in 2013, and the first grams of food caviar did not go on sale until June 26, 2017, Madagascar’s independence day.
The quality of the harvest depends on the dexterity of one man, 23-year-old Gaston Soavan’i Thomas. Knife in hand, Thomas has no margin for error as he extracts eggs from the entrails of each sturgeon.
“At first, I was afraid to destroy or contaminate the eggs, but now everything comes automatically,” he said. The eggs are kept in a refrigerated room at 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit).
Expert taster Georges Heriniaina Andrianjatovo taps each box with a small hammer to detect any air bubbles removed as soon as possible. Colour, taste, and smell are all important.
The island off the coast of Mozambique is still only a minor player in the global production of food caviar, which is dominated by China, Italy, and France. However, producers in the Caspian Sea still boast the most prized caviar, from Beluga sturgeon.
Last year Mozambique produced a tonne of food caviar in a world market of about 340 tonnes a year. But its ambitious promoters hope to increase production to five tonnes soon.