Say ‘caviar substitute’ and frankly, I’m not interested. Like most people, I don’t eat caviar or even know anyone who does. Not being part of the James Bond set, it isn’t on the menu of any restaurant I patronise either in a professional or private capacity. Then there is that whole ‘substitute’ business which, for foodies at least, has deeply negative resonances. Try convincing us about the benefits of carob over chocolate, or textured vegetable protein over good, lean mince and we have already stopped listening.
But then I had my first encounter with Avruga, atop a roasted chunk of fabulous Scottish West Coast turbot in a restaurant in Ayrshire. It looked like tiny black, shiny eggs and delivered the most delightful flavours and textures; buttery, smooth and rounded with a smoked-salmon smokiness and welcome lemony sharpness. It enhanced the turbot beautifully and got me well and truly hooked on this staggeringly interesting new product with a three-D taste and any number of potential uses from ‘treats’ to everyday food.
Avruga is named to sound like Sevruga, the more ‘affordable’ type of caviar. At the time of writing, Caviar House was retailing the latter at a mere £1,527 a kilo, a positive snip compared to the more celebrated Beluga, which will set you back £3,987 a kilo.
Avruga, by contrast, costs about £100 for that amount.
It is made from the roe of the common herring, Clupeaharengus, a roe that is popular in Finland where it is called Silakka. The Northern Hemisphere tradition of curing fish roe is long and diverse,embracing the roes of many fish you have heard of, such as salmon, trout, perch, bream, lumpfish and pike, and many others that you have not, like eel-pout, vendace and lavaret. But as with so many things pescatorial, Avruga is a Spanish product,devised by Pescaviar, a small Madrid company, set up explicitly to find aviable alternative to caviar, the roe of the sturgeon, the pursuit of which has driven this celebrated Caspian Sea fish to the brink of extinction.
Pescaviar’s Juan Antonio Garcia has come up with a light pasteurisation process which causes the herring roe to swell and darken and take on the appearance of Sevruga caviar. Otherwise salt and lemon juice is added along with a trace of preservative producing a roe that tastes neither like herring or caviar, but which is compelling on its own account. Indeed, many people may prefer it to sturgeon caviar which is by all accounts more pungent and fishy. No surprise then that Avruga is being embraced by agrowing fan club of chefs such as Rick Stein, Germain Schwab and Anthony Worrall Thompson who like it because it looks great (it doesn’t ‘bleed’colour like cheap, gaudy lumpfish roe), it tastes good and it doesn’t break the bank.
There is also a seasonal variant of Avruga called -the plot thickens- Moluga.
This is the first flush Darjeeling of the herring roeworld. Made from spring-caught roes, it is creamier and more subtle than Avruga, with a less pronounced fishy-lemony taste and costs twice the price.’Sturgeon-friendly’ Avruga is attracting a following as the environmentally-aware alternative to caviar since herring stocks are in a considerably more healthy state than that of the sturgeon, a proposition that gets cautious backing from Dr Sarah Jones of the World Wide Fund for Nature. “North East Atlantic and North Sea herring stocks collapsed in the Seventies and a recovery plan was put in operation. Now they are in a fairly healthy state again but the market for them has collapsed because people have got out of the habit of eating them. We want to see more more herring eaten provided they are from sustainable fisheries” she says. Patrick Limpus, who imports Avruga makes the point that the raw herring roe used for Avruga is bought on the Rotterdam fish market from herrings sought for the rollmop market. “Before Avruga, no-one did very much with the herring roes apart from sell it for fish sauce. It had little value,” he says, stressing that Avruga is not creating a new, potentially catastrophic hunt for the herring, simply making more of a viable, under-utilised resource. So what do you do with the stuff? You may want just to eat it on its own on rye toast, or buckwheat blinis with a dollop of soured cream. Party canapé queen, Lorna Wing, suggests incorporating it into a creamy white sauce for spaghetti, drizzling it in watercress soup, mixing it into a crème fraiche dip with chives alongside chips or fried potatoes skins. You won’trun out of ideas once you have tasted it, believe me.
Joanna Blythman, who lives and works in Edinburgh, is widely regarded as Britain’s leading investigative food journalist. She contributes to various newspapers and periodicals and her book The Food We Eat won the Glenfiddich Award for food writing in 1997.