Caviar is one of the world's totemic luxury products, but how do those little pearls of seafood goodness get from inside a fish to on top of your toast? On a frigid, wet Melbourne morning, I head down to Yarra Valley Caviar to find out.
There are a couple of things to know about Yarra Valley Caviar. One, it's a bit past the Yarra Valley, being a good half an hour past Marysville in the township of Thornton. And two, the caviar was not originally the main focus. Fish produce hundreds of eggs each year, and if Atlantic salmon don't have access to seawater to lay their eggs, they won't lay at all and will eventually die. To save their stock, workers at the farm would 'milk' the salmon, ridding them of their eggs and returning them to the water. And then they had a thought – what if the eggs were not a byproduct but the main event?
Now Yarra Valley Caviar produces Atlantic salmon, rainbow trout and brook trout caviar. The fish are hand milked once a year, and the resulting eggs are packed with 3 per cent salt to cure. A particular favourite was the smoked salmon caviar, which is packed in smoked salt and cold smoked, each one a perfect pearl ready to burst and flood your mouth with the flavour of lox.
Milking a salmon, as I learned, takes a bit of finesse. The fish are put into a tank with a weak solution of clove oil, which acts as an anaesthetic. Once the fish are sufficiently doped up, an experienced fish farmer reaches into the tank and removes the fish from the water and strokes her belly to see if the eggs are ready to be harvested. If they are not, she's put back in her pond for another few days. If she is, she's flipped over and the person doing the milk runs his or her hand down the fish's underbelly, encouraging a stream of bright orange pearls to cascade into waiting buckets.
Having had sufficient time in the clove oil solution, the fish I am handed does not struggle in my grasp. When she's flipped over, the eggs start falling out on their own, with very little encouragement. I am gentle with the upper part of the fish's underbelly, where her organs are located, but I apply a bit of pressure to her lower abdomen to encourage the last few eggs. She's slippery and smooth, leaving a film of slime on my hands. When all her eggs are deposited, the salmon's belly flops like a deflated balloon, and she's half her original size. She's put into a super-oxygenated recovery tank, and when she's swimming around normally, she's returned to her pond, to be left unmolested for another year.
Although you can't usually milk the salmon yourself (that's best left to the professionals, trust me), you can definitely enjoy the fruits of their, er, loins, with Yarra Valley Caviar available online and all over Melbourne.