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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Caviar's Off, Even in Land of Black Gold

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All I've wanted since I arrived in Baku three weeks ago is a spoonful of caviar.

"Baku? You'll be drowning in caviar," a friend said before I left London. "Last time I was there I came back with 3 kilos of the stuff hidden inside a pair of socks."

Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places. At the markets they say they haven't seen it for months. Fishmongers say they don't stock it any more.

Even the slick waiter at the Caviar House restaurant in the Grand Hotel Europe shook his head when I asked for a portion of best beluga.

Not everyone likes the stuff. Decades ago, the story goes, to celebrate the end of a film shoot on board a ship, David Niven sent ashore for crates of caviar to treat the crew. "I want enough for everyone on board," he said. Back came the caviar by the bucket-load. Huge dollops were heaped onto plates and sent below decks. "Well, what did they think?" the movie star asked after the party was over. "The food was fantastic," came the reply, "but the blackberry jam tasted a bit fishy."

There's plenty of blackberry jam in Baku — just no caviar. Perhaps it's true what they say about the Caspian. Poachers have taken so much of the sturgeons' roe, or 'black gold' as they call it, it's becoming impossible to come across. And so I found myself last week aboard a rickety ship that's setting off across the Caspian to find out just how many sturgeon are left. On board are scientists from each of the five Caspian states and the latest in sonar technology for detecting fish.

"It's been a nightmare to sort out," the organizer told me. "Turkmenistan's just got a new foreign minister, who says he knows nothing about the expedition and won't let the boat into his part of the sea."

Even getting permission to put supplies onto the boat had been a headache. Everything had to be checked by the harbor master, a crotchety old man with two rows of gold teeth and a stick.

The day before, he hadn't let nine boxes of supplies on board. "The list says there should be 10," he barked. He only let them go when they sent an empty box to make up the 10.

Down on the shore, the last of the crew were climbing on board. The Kazakh, Azeri and Russian scientists were unpacking their suitcases and the two Iranians lounged in the television room. Were they looking forward to the trip, I asked them. "Oh yes," they chorused.

At sunset, the boat pulled out of the harbor to begin its six-week trawl of the Caspian. I envy them. Sun, sea, and most of all, all that sturgeon's roe.

"Caviar?" the captain said before they left. "Good grief, no. We've brought all our supplies with us. Tinned fruit, tinned vegetables, corned beef. There'll be no caviar on this boat."

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.