In scenes reminiscent of Britain's infamous trade of stolen gadgets in pubs, furtive traders today knock at the backdoor of upscale restaurants offering a new contraband: caviar. London's hordes of Russian oligarchs and hedge-fund yuppies have sent demand soaring for "black gold," with top varieties such as Beluga now selling for over $3,000 a kilo, whilst the rarest varieties, such as Almas ($50,000 per kilo), whose eggs are white, have a four-year waiting list. The soaring demand for sturgeon roe has created lucrative opportunities for "caviar cowboys," who sell illegally smuggled caviar to unscrupulous chefs willing to turn a blind eye.
Paul Merritt, a Michelin-starred chef and BBC TV food presenter, has confirmed that he was often offered caviar at half the normal price by suspicious characters. "Three or four people would ring up and say, 'I've got some caviar. Would you like some now?' just like you would if you had someone calling up and saying, 'I've got a few dodgy stereos'," said Merritt.
Once the exclusive preserve of the extremely wealthy, caviar's recent growing appeal has come at the price of dwindling fish stocks. Although the trade is supposed to be tightly regulated by quotas, the messy breakup of the Soviet Union led to a flourishing black market that has proved difficult to suppress. According to the World Wildlife Fund, many sturgeon species are now being pushed to the brink of extinction. Although the British government recently introduced tough new labeling requirements for all caviar sold in the U.K., so far caviar smuggling has passed with little sanction. EU countries imported 591 tonnes of caviar in 2006, but seizures of illegal caviar between 2000 and 2005 totaled just 12 tonnes.
The illegal trade ranges from private individuals flogging jars of caviar at open-air market stalls to well-organized smuggling operations, with paid couriers picking up pre-packed black market roe for delivery to specified customers.
The Caviar House in London's guilded Green Park neighbourhood has long been a favoured haunt for those with deep pockets. Boasting 15 different grades of caviar from three different breeds, and a menu of specialist vodkas, the restaurant is also something of a haven for caviar connoisseurs.
"Caviar has always been a luxury [and] the booming demand has gone hand in hand with a lot more money [being] around in Britain," said Lucie Herring, public relations manager for Caviar House-Prunier. "It was the preserve of the old rich, like Russians, but now with City boys [those employed in London's financial district] coming in, the new rich too."
Rising demand has been accompanied by dwindling sturgeon stocks. Experts estimate that sources of caviar have fallen by more than 90% since the late 1970s because of overfishing. The supply crunch looks set to get worse as a ban intended to replenish the stocks of the depleted Caspian sea, which supplies about 90 percent of the world's caviar, was rescinded earlier this year to the outrage of environmentalists.
Although the Caviar House meticulously sources its eggs from specialist farms in France and the Caspian Sea in Iran, other restaurants are less picky. One upmarket restaurant manager told TIME that the growth of black market caviar threatened the trade itself: 'There is a huge black market in Russian caviar in particular," the manager said. "You get some people who come in and say 'I've got a jar of Beluga for a hundred pounds ($200)', but it's been pasteurized to preserve it. It will threaten the trade if they [are allowed to] keep fishing and fishing."
Despite the surge in illicit caviar making it onto the tables of Britain's restaurants, purists insist that there's no comparison between the bootleg version and the real thing. Experts claim that a caviar's quality can be tested by placing a little between thumb and forefinger. Once eaten, good eggs will leave no residue or fishy smell. "The taste is not the same black market tell-tale signs are that it's oily and smells of fish," adds Herring.
But despite ethical qualms which have prompted some chefs to renounce it altogether rich Londoners can't seem to get enough of the black stuff. Stuart Lyall, head chef of the Fishmarket restaurant sums up its status allure: "Demand for beluga, our top seller, is still very high... people have not been deterred from ordering it. It's still a very decadent choice."