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White caviar, the gold of the Austrian Alps

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White caviar "Made in Austria" sells for more than 1,300 euros per 100 grams
White caviar "Made in Austria" sells for more than 1,300 euros per 100 grams   -   Copyright  Celine JANKOWIAK, Joe KLAMAR / AFPTV / AFP
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In a village near Salzburg, Austria, caviar farmers are readying their produce ahead of New Year’s Eve.

But this isn’t any old caviar - it’s white caviar, taken from the extremely rare albino sturgeon, and worth three times as much.

In his workshop in the village of Grödig, Walter Grüll delicately incises the flesh of one of the fish, aged 16, to extract eggs with a surprising cream colour.

"It is even sweeter, even more melting than the traditionally black caviar," he says as he washes his harvest.

He took only 600 grams on this day, but that modest-sounding amount is worth €8,000.

"These eggs are among the most expensive foods in the world. They represent only 1% of our total caviar production," said Grüll.

Grüll Fischhandel (Grüll Fish Trade) sends the eggs all over the world, and despite the coronavirus crisis shutting down many top restaurants, orders are picking up on the retail side.

"People want to savour the present moment," added the breeder, answering the incessant phone calls that punctuate his days in the run-up to the end of the year.

New Year’s Eve festivities represent nearly 40% of his annual turnover.

Many of the customers are located in Asia, Russia and the Middle East.

This species, which can live up to 120 years and was present on earth at the time of the dinosaurs, is on the verge of extinction in its natural environment in Russia or Iran.

World production of wild sturgeon collapsed in the 1980s due to overfishing and pollution.

According to the latest available statistics from the World Sturgeon Conservation Society as of 2018, 2,480 farms in 55 countries produce 415 tonnes of caviar per year.

Only 30 to 40 of these farms, including two or three in Austria, offer white caviar, according to Thomas Friedrich, an academic who is coordinating a programme in Vienna to boost sturgeon populations on the Danube.