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BIGANOS, France (Reuters Life!) - French caviar is back on the menu thanks to Siberian sturgeon who now live near the Gironde estuary close to Bordeaux.
At Biganos in the southwest of France, near the Arcachon bay known for its oysters, one firm aims to produce high-end caviar by providing a good life for Russian sturgeon.
The Moulin de la Cassadotte started in 1993 and now makes a tonne of the fish eggs per year out of the total French production of 20 tonnes, almost exclusively in the Gironde area.
"We could make some 5 to 6 tonnes of caviar per year but we will limit it to 2-2.5 tonnes," said Jean-Pascal Feray, chairman of the firm. We made it our goal to make the best caviar possible for the luxury market," he added.
The small black Gironde fish eggs are used by such top chefs as Thierry Marx in Paulliac, the Pourcel brothers in Montpellier, 'father of light cooking' Michel Guerard at Eugenie les Bains, and Alain Dutournier in Paris.
The firm has 70,000 sturgeon living in natural conditions in clean, controlled ponds around the Gironde area rather than in the large fish tanks used by some caviar-makers.
Locals say that in 1916 a Russian princess travelled in the area and saw fishermen feed sturgeon eggs to ducks and chickens.
Telling them how to make caviar, she started a golden age for the estuary where Atlantic ocean water mixes with the Dordogne and Garonne rivers.
Gironde caviar became a luxury product in specialist Paris shops, the prices rose and in the 1960s the eight firms fishing the local sturgeon, called creac, did very well indeed.
But intensive fishing and pollution depleted the stock and in 1982 the local variety, Ascipenser Sturio nearly disappeared and was declared a protected species.
In the main caviar producing countries of Russia and Iran, overfishing and illegal catches have also reduced the stock of fish and exports are limited, but Siberia's Ascipenser Baerii have been imported to the Gironde and Moulin de la Cassadotte is one of four firms to use the fish.
Feray's firm employs seven people and had 2009 revenues of 650,000 euros ($883,200). In 2006 it was bought by Caviar de France which improved the living conditions for the fish that live in its 32 ponds of fresh water.
The density of the fish was divided by two and there is no warming of the water -- which some other sturgeon farms use to speed up maturity and yield.
"The sturgeon needs a quality of life. If the conditions are not right, the caviar will not be good," said Jean-Pascal Feray.
It takes about 10 years before the eggs are harvested.
At the age of four, only the female fish are kept and they are moved from pond to pond during their life to end up in a pond filled with pure ground water.
A mature sturgeon can measure 1 meter and weigh seven 7 kg (15 lb) of which 10 percent is caviar that is extracted in a laboratory.
"Diva" caviar is fresh, without preservatives and needs to be consumed within three months. It sells for 69 euros ($93.30) per 30g tin. 'Ebene' caviar is made with traditional Russian and Iranian method, keeps for 18 months and costs 90 euros.
Writing by Marcel Michelson