• Switzerland edition
 
Hot springs surprise: gourmet Swiss caviar
Photo: Charles Haynes

Hot springs surprise: gourmet Swiss caviar

Published: 02 Dec 2012 16:34 GMT+01:00
Updated: 02 Dec 2012 16:34 GMT+01:00

A tunnel project that unexpectedly uncovered hot springs in the Bernese Alps a decade ago is gradually turning Switzerland into a producer of luxury caviar to reckon with.

"We could produce the first Swiss caviar a year ago," says Andreas Schmid, who heads marketing at Tropenhaus Frutigen, a company using geothermal energy from the Lötschberg rail tunnel to produce exotic fruit in addition to sturgeon meat and caviar.

Near the tiny village of Frutigen, in a valley flanked by towering, snow-dusted peaks in the canton of Bern, around 35,000 greyish black Siberian sturgeon bask in pools filled with naturally heated Alpine spring water.

This year, the company will produce up to 800 kilograms of caviar, selling on average at 3,000 francs ($3,232) a kilo, but it ultimately aims to have 60,000 sturgeon and an annual production of three tonnes of the black gold.

Standing in a production room, chilled to exactly four degrees Celsius, Tropenhaus Frutigen's production manager Tobias Felix gently slits open the slimy, silver-white belly of a large sturgeon to reveal an abundance of tiny black eggs.

Another worker, who like Felix is wearing a hair net, face mask, white rubber boots and work clothes covered with protective blue plastic, steps forward and carefully sink his gloved hands into the fish to pull out several large handfuls of the pearly eggs, glimmering with silver under the florescent lights.

"From the time the sturgeon is killed, it takes about 10 minutes for the caviar to be salted" — the last step in a process carried out entirely by hand, Felix says.

Placing the precious eggs in a large metal bowl, he washes them with icy water before pouring them into a strainer and allowing them to drip dry for a few minutes.

Felix sprinkles on an exactly measured amount of Bex salt, mined in the Swiss canton of Vaud, and gently mixes it into the delicate eggs, before briefly lifting aside his blue face mask to taste the caviar.

Satisfied, he carefully distributes the caviar into dainty metal containers in different sizes, ranging from 30 up to 500 grammes, and labelled: "Pure Swiss Alpine Caviar".

The smallest tin, holding enough for a large mouthful of the slightly salty, bursting eggs, sells on site for 68 francs.

Complex tunnel project provides unusual origins

But how did caviar production come to this windswept mountainous land in the heart of Europe, far from the sea?

It is an unlikely story that begins a project to build an Alpine rail tunnel about a decade ago.

Engineers working on the Lötschberg tunnel were thrown when 18-degree Celsius water began pouring into the cavity at a rate of 70 litres  per second.

They were desperate to get rid of the water, but since it was so hot, it was impossible to divert it to the nearby river, where it would certainly harm the fish and plant life.

Chief tunnel engineer Peter Hufschmied, who was married to a Russian woman and well-versed in the joys of Russian caviar, came up with a unique solution: to use the water to create a sturgeon farm.

Siberian Sturgeon, which when grown measure around a metre and can weigh up to 200 kilograms, "very easily adapt to water temperatures and also like warm water," Schmid says.

It was a lucrative business idea: the precious eggs make up a full 10 percent of the body weight of the large fish, which are relatively easy to farm even though they take years to reach maturity.

Raised in captivity, female sturgeon do not begin producing eggs until the age of six.

The first baby fish, purchased in France and Hungary, had arrived in Frutigen in 2005 — two years before the Löschberg tunnel opened, Schmid says, pointing out that Tropenhaus Frutigen had thus been able to produce the first Swiss caviar last year.

In 2011, the nearly 200 kilograms of caviar was sold, mainly on the domestic market.

But Schmid says the company was quickly broadening its focus and aimed to eventually sell two-thirds of the black gold internationally.

But exporting sturgeon-based products is no simple matter.

Since the Siberian sturgeon have been over-fished in their natural habitat, the market is strictly regulated by CITES, a UN-linked organization charged with protecting endangered species.

Permits are required to sell products based on farmed sturgeon, while CITES often puts in place moratoriums on wild sturgeon products due to lacking quota accords between the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea.

The sturgeon "is not endangered but it could be threatened if there are not strict controls," David Morgan, who heads CITES scientific team, tells AFP.

Sturgeon farming, which has existed elsewhere in Europe since the 1970s, is a good thing since it "reduces pressure on the wild species," he says.

However, the practice could also have a flip side, he cautioned, pointing out that it could push down the value of the wild sturgeon and thus remove a major "incentive to keep the waters clean."

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Cable car worker plunges to death in safety check
View of Gant-Hohtälli cable car tower. Photo: Valais cantonal police

Cable car worker plunges to death in safety check

A 39-year-old worker checking a cable car during a safety inspection died on Tuesday afternoon after falling from a pylon near Zermatt in the canton of Valais, cantonal police said. READ  

Switzerland's Bencic knocked out of US Open
Peng was too much for Bencic, shown here in action. Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North America/AFP

Switzerland's Bencic knocked out of US Open

Unseeded Peng Shuai of China swept past Swiss teen Belinda Bencic 6-2, 6-1 on Tuesday to reach the US Open women's tennis tournament semifinals. READ  

Witnesses sought after police car runs over man
The police car was responding to an assault complaint in Payerne. Photo: Alain Rouiller

Witnesses sought after police car runs over man

Investigators are seeking witnesses after a police car ran over a 22-year-old man who died on the A1 motorway in the canton of Fribourg last week as officers responded to an assault complaint from another man who was with the victim earlier. READ  

Ukraine conflict drives 500,000 from homes:UN

Fighting in Ukraine has driven over half a million people from their homes, the Geneva-based UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday, warning that the real number could be double that, in a crisis threatening the entire region. READ  

Tories pledge to expand UK expat voting rights
Tories promise expat Brits the right vote in the UK for the rest of their lives — if they win re-election. Photo: Hagwall/Flickr

Tories pledge to expand UK expat voting rights

The Conservative party in the UK is wooing expat voters by pledging to end the controversial “15-year rule” that prevents thousands of Brits in Switzerland and millions elsewhere abroad from being able to vote. READ  

Swiss economy slows down in second quarter
Graph showing GDP growth over past five years. Source: Seco

Swiss economy slows down in second quarter

The Swiss economy ground to a halt in the second quarter of this year with the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) unchanged from the first three months of 2014, government figures released on Tuesday show. READ  

Nude selfies secretary agrees to step down
Woman taking a selfie (not the secretary involved in Bern). Photo: Getty Images/AFP

Nude selfies secretary agrees to step down

A Swiss parliament secretary who posted naked selfies on her Twitter account after posing for the photos in her government office has agreed to give up her job. READ  

Wawrinka overcomes cramps in New York win
Photo: Al Belo/Getty Images North America/AFP

Wawrinka overcomes cramps in New York win

The Swiss third seed Stan Wawrinka battled cramps and a frightening fall on Monday but emerged with a gutsy four-set victory over Tommy Robredo and a quarterfinal place in the US Open tennis tournament. READ  

Burkhalter hails Second World War mobilization
Swiss President Didier Burkhalter. Photo: FDFA

Burkhalter hails Second World War mobilization

Swiss President Didier Burkhalter on Monday thanked the country’s citizens who mobilized 75 years earlier to defend the mountain country when the Second World War broke out. READ  

Swiss pay UK and Austria over tax dodging
Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Swiss pay UK and Austria over tax dodging

Switzerland said on Monday that it had completed a programme to pay Britain and Austria hundreds of millions of euros in settlements for past tax-dodging by their citizens. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sponsored Article
Car insurance made easy online with St Bernard
National
Swiss residents pick Swedes as ideal European soul mates: survey
National
Zurich officials call project to move prostitutes to 'sex boxes' a success
National
Swiss gays recognized as parents of child born to surrogate mother
Health
Increase in mountain bike accidents keeps Swiss hospitals busy
National
Swiss policeman belatedly honoured for saving Jews from Holocaust
National
'Suicide tourists' to Switzerland double in three years: study
National
Swiss Post SMS scheme gets stamp of approval after pilot project
Business & Money
American tax evasion crackdown hits Swiss private banks' bottom line
Politics
Woman accuses Swiss politician in nude selfies scandal of lying
National
Villagers in Graubünden valley reject hydro plant to protect vultures
Business & Money
Court rules against appellation for absinthe from Neuchâtel valley
National
Two hundred passengers rescued after landslide derails Swiss train
Travel
Switzerland remains world champion for per capita train travel
Culture
Social media backlash forces Polanski to bow out of Locarno film festival
National
Two policemen identified among three Israelis killed in train crash
Features
Untouched Alps: The Local explores Switzerland's only national park
National
Swiss government secretary tweets nude ‘selfies’ taken at work
International
Swiss couples fined in Ibiza for making love in van without seatbelts
National
Schumacher medical record theft suspect hangs himself in Zurich cell
National
Thousands of motorists drive without permits in Switzerland: report
National
Switzerland celebrates the centennial of national park in Graubünden
National
Animal rights group protests over dead fish throwing at festival
National
Federer forced to tear down kids' play area at Graubünden holiday home
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

2,031
jobs available