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Winter harvest for golden pearls in Victoria

A natural calming oil makes for great caviar in the Yarra Valley

Kirstie Bedford

If you mention a winter harvest, most people think of heart-warming roast vegetables – but there’s another important harvest, which takes place in Victoria each year… and it’s of a completely different kind.

During the month of May, a small team gather at the base of the Rubicon River for Yarra Valley Caviar’s annual Atlantic salmon caviar harvest.

Donning waders and gumboots, a table is lined with white buckets, and the fish are carefully lifted from their ponds and milked one by one (all 50,000 of them), filling the buckets with golden roe – sometimes up to two kilograms of pearls from a single fish.

The milking process is a strategic one, and can only take place when the salmon are ready to release their eggs in May – this ensures there is no unnecessary stress put on the fish – and because the eggs simply flow out when the fish are ‘hand-milked’, the caviar is completely intact and flawless.

Crucial to ensuring the salmon aren’t put under any undue stress is an unlikely ingredient – clove oil.

Used in Chinese medicine as early as 600 AD as a calming or numbing agent, clove oil is to this day used as a local anesthetic by some dentists. Whole cloves are frequently used as a spice in curries and rice, for chai tea and added to mulled wine around the world.

For milking, the oil is added to large tin tubs as a natural anesthetic. The fish are placed in the tubs and once they’re relaxed, they are lifted out, hand-milked and returned to recovery ponds for a few minutes, until they are ready to go back to their larger ponds to spawn again the following year.

Yarra Valley Caviar is one of few farms of its kind in the world to do the process entirely by hand, and it’s a practice fitting with the farm’s strict sustainable, and humane, practices – which see it following all of the UK soil association guidelines for organic aquaculture.

This year’s harvest has seen a record amount of roe – with more than 14 tonnes and another two tonnes of premium roe from its three-year-old salmon, who have never been milked before.

Effectively the ‘veal’ of the salmon family, the young salmon roe is softer and more palatable and will be brined on site at the farm, using Murray River pink salt flakes and organic sugar, and packaged in 40-gram traditional tins.
Available in limited supply from June, given the quantities of salmon available, it is already being requested by restaurants around the country as an entrée.

But you needn’t have to head out to enjoy this decadent product – it will be available at farmers’ markets and gourmet delis, and a little adds a wonderful touch of luxury to a party or even an everyday meal.

To enjoy Yarra Valley Caviar as a starter, simply scatter over shucked oysters, smoked salmon, sushi or other seafood canapés, or scoop on top of blinis spread with cream cheese. We like it for brunch, sprinkled on scrambled eggs; for mains, fold through pasta or scatter over cooked salmon or other fish.

Those golden globes add beautiful colour and sparkle, and will brighten up your dishes through winter and beyond – all thanks to a natural calming oil used for millennia, and the ingenuity of an outstanding Australian regional food producer.

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