As much as I love reviewing restaurants, attending launch parties and being sent new products to test and taste, I think my favourite type of event is when I get to meet producers and creators. Hearing people speak so passionately about something they've dedicated their entire lives to is inspiring and exciting. So I jumped at the chance to spend an evening with the guys from Sturia, France's leading caviar producers, at The Balcon where I've eaten and reviewed previously.

Sturia was set up nearly 20 years ago to produce sturgeon and caviar near Bordeaux, in the Aquitaine region of South West France, where over 90% of France's 25 tonnes of caviar is produced annually. Sturia produces 12 tonnes of this. The eggs are taken from the best spawning fish, after which the producers have to wait 2-3 years to determine the fish's gender. Once the females are identified they are farmed in ponds for up to 8 years until they reach egg producing age. Amazingly, an egg producing female weighs a massive ten kilos, and yields around 1kg of which is eggs/caviar! That's a lot of eggs for a fish to be carrying! The caviar is harvested between September and March each year. The grains are then hand sieved, very carefully washed in water, mixed with salt and tinned in 1kg tins to mature naturally in special temperature controlled rooms - not dissimilar to wine cellars. The great thing about Sturia's (and France's) caviar production method is that it is all farmed. This might not sound preferable to wild caviar but due to over-fishing the sale of caviar from wild sturgeon has been banned for the last eight years.

The caviar produced by Sturia is matured for various amounts of time, resulting in different final products. Each different type of caviar works well with different types of food, which was demonstrated throughout the meal we had at The Balcon that had been specially designed to pair with the caviars.

Our first course was "Caviar Consomme" - a soft quail egg in a cold, creamy cauliflower cream soup, that topped a layer of Caviar Jasmin (a delicate and fresh caviar matured for just a few weeks). This was one of my favourite courses, with the salty and sweet flavours working perfectly together.

Next up was my absolute favourite of the evening - "Caviar Yoghurt" - red mullet filet, native oysters, citrus juice pearls and very generous blobs of Caviar Primeur, which is another caviar aged for only four weeks that has strong hazelnut flavours which added a richness and depth to the plate of cold, fresh and mostly raw seafood.

"Caviar Cannelloni" was a dish of steamed sea bass on a stick of lemongrass, roasted melon, fresh artichoke hearts and Caviar Oscietra Grand Cru wrapped up cannelloni style. Caviar Oscietra Grand Cru is one of the most exclusive and expensive caviars in Sturia's range, made only from the most firm and luminous caviar eggs, giving it a light golden colour not generally associated with 'normal' caviar. Again, the caviar portions were huge and though I loved the accompaniments, the fish itself wasn't for me this time.

Our meat course was "Caviar Velvet" - a sautéed veal fillet, pressed vegetables and Caviar Origin. The veal was beautiful and the caviar such an ideal accompaniment. Caviar Origin is matured for longer than the Jasmin and Primeur, and as such has a more complex iodine flavour that is reminiscent of the flavours of wild caviar and makes it perfect alongside meat such as veal.

The final course of our epic caviar feast was "Champagne and Caviar" - Ecuadorian chocolate ganache with champagne granita and Caviar Vintage. Champagne and caviar is a classic combo, so we spooned a little Caviar Vintage on to each spoonful of the champagne granita, and followed it with a bite of the chocolate ganache crispy. Such an interesting pairing, and the champagne granita and caviar is something I would absolutely serve at a dinner party (budget allowing!). The caviar for this course is the 'ambassador' of Sturia, matured to taste just perfect on its own, and even more so with champagne. 

I had such a fascinating evening learning about the different grades of caviar, what to pair it with and the intricacies of its production. I think for me, the most surprising thing though is the accessibility of the starting price point - the most affordable of Sturia's offerings retails for around £28 for 15g which is definitely enough to make a good scrambled egg breakfast that much more decadent. Of course, it's still a treat, but one that's not so ridiculously expensive that it's totally out of reach. Another very interesting thing about Sturia's caviar production is that they ensure they use the entire fish, so rather than just taking the eggs and discarding the fish, they use the sturgeon to make smoked sturgeon and rillettes flavoured with caviar, truffle, yuzu or langoustine, which start at 7 euros a pot, so an even more economical way to taste this wonderful fish and its eggs! 

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