Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Caviar Conundrum: Beware the Bogus Beluga

The first thing to know when hunting down black caviar is that a synthetic version of the fish eggs does exist.

At the Experimental Fish Concentrate Factory in northern Moscow, 70 workers produce 12, 000-13, 000 jars of artificial black caviar a day. The creation of egg white, gelatin, and fish extract looks strikingly similar to the sturgeon eggs favored by gourmets worldwide.

"We have buyers who think the taste is real", said Galina Inyaknina, head of the factory's production laboratory.

The real thing has become scarce in Moscow's stores. Shoppers say black caviar has been absent from most shelves for months.

Experts say that the polluting of Russia's rivers and the Caspian Sea means that fewer sturgeon produce eggs than even a decade ago.

"The next generation of Russians will know Beluga only from pictures", said Vitaly Fomenko, director of the Experimental Fish Factory. "There wont be any left".

The independence of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and other caviar-rich regions also means that Moscow can no longer order the provinces to keep the capital well stocked. Rather, they prefer to sell abroad.

Enterprising local merchants from these areas continue to sell to Moscow, only now most caviar is not going into state shops. Instead, kiosks concentrated in the Arbat and Novy Arbat area dominate the city's caviar trade.

"People bring it in on trains from Astrakhan", explained Artur Khalatyan, an Arbat kiosk salesman. "It's cheaper than through official channels because they don't pay taxes".

Khalatyan said he tests quality by trying a can when a vendor arrives.

Yet a good proportion of caviar sold on the street is made in small farms and in mom-and-pop operations of dubious cleanliness, industry experts say.

Middlemen also offer their wares to large fish stores like Mayak 30 on Leningradsky Prospekt.

"Just six years ago before perestroika, all was, as you say, OK", said store manager Yelena Smirnova. "Every citizen of the U. S. S. R. could buy caviar".

Yelena Yakovleva, director of Universam 55, another food store, said that she has other worries besides stocking caviar.

"I have to supply the people with everyday bread, milk, and meat, and caviar is too expensive for my area", she said. "It's an elite product".

That focus leaves caviar-hungry Russians to rely largely on kiosks. On the streets of Moscow, artificial caviar even makes an appearance in authentic caviar containers - at real caviar prices, some Arbat salespeople said.