Associated Press by Karine G. Barzegar

Dec 29, 2000

Associated Press Archive

December 29, 2000

Iranian caviar back on U.S. menus after lengthy embargo lifted
KARINE G. BARZEGAR AP Business Writer  

In a cold, gray building, lost among dozens of warehouses and auto-parts dealers in outer Queens, Hossein Aimani possesses an immense treasure -- billions of tiny, glistening eggs smelling of sea and salt in blue-and-gold tins bearing the name "Paramount Caviar."

 A few miles away in midtown Manhattan, a very different scene. At the luxurious French restaurant Le Bernardin, chef Eric Ripert serves Paramount's golden ossetra with warm crepes, toast and creme fraiche to his caviar-savvy clientele. The holidays are high caviar season in New York and elsewhere in the United States, and this year devotees are getting reacquainted with the pleasures of Iranian caviar, back on local menus and store shelves after a 13-year U.S. trade embargo was lifted.

 "We started serving Iranian caviar this autumn, and now we only serve 100 percent Iranian golden ossetra caviar," said Ripert, whose customers devour more than 10 pounds per week.

 Secretary of State Madeleine Albright removed the trade sanctions on Iranian caviar, pistachios and carpets in March as a sign of improved relations between the United States and Iran's reformist government.

 Americans consume more than 130,000 pounds of caviar a year, with three-quarters of the retail and wholesale business taking place in New York. Russia is now the single largest supplier to the U.S. market, while Iran is the world's largest producer.

 New York's importance in the U.S. trade makes sense "because you have the best restaurants and hotels, and Wall Street," said Aimani, an Iranian who sells caviar from both Russia and his homeland. "Caviar follows the money."

 Prices for the product -- eggs stripped from sturgeon caught mostly in the Caspian Sea -- have skyrocketed this year because of diminished supply primarily due to years of poaching, along with oil spills and dam construction that has severely restricted sturgeon habitat.

 Beluga, the rarest type of caviar, retails for about of $70 an ounce from Russia, while an ounce of Iranian beluga averages $110. Sevruga, the most common type, has jumped from about $40 for the Russian variety to as much as $55 for the Iranian.

 For Patricia and Robert Chabora, who often stop at Petrossian Boutique in midtown Manhattan to indulge after a Broadway show, the price of Iranian caviar is too high.

 "It's a nice little treat for us, having caviar and champagne at home, in front of the fireplace," said Patricia Chabora while her husband purchased a four-ounce tin of Russian sevruga. "We buy sevruga caviar -- otherwise it's too expensive."

 "If we were richer, we'd buy beluga," adds Robert Chabora, with a laugh.  But for the gastronomic elite, Iranian caviar has emerged as a must for this holiday season. "If you talk to real connoisseurs, they want Iranian caviar and they don't complain about the prices," said Roman Schaetti, marketing director at Porimex Trading AG, a caviar-exporting company based in Lachen, Switzerland. "These are the same people who buy a famous Bordeaux cru wine at $3,000, and don't care about the high prices."

 Retailers of Iranian caviar can make substantial profits through markups of up to 40 percent. The product has also become a lucrative business for the Iranian government, which holds a monopoly on the entire caviar process -- from sturgeon catch to export. Revenue from caviar exports totaled $45 million in 2000 for nearly 150,000 pounds, according to Mohammad Hosseini, managing director of the Iranian Fisheries Co., or Shilat. By comparison, Iran earned about $35 million last year on exports of roughly 200,000 pounds.

 Caviar production is also down in Russia -- officials there say exports will be 60 percent less than last year -- and prices are higher.  Since the breakup of the Soviet Union a decade ago, poaching has taken an increasing toll on the sturgeon population in the Caspian. Total catches of wild sturgeon there have dropped 80 percent since 1992. On the Russian side, stocks have fallen to about 5,000 tons, down from more than 40,000 tons in 1980, said Boris Kotenev, who heads the nation's fisheries industry research institute.

  Russia's Interior Ministry estimates that the official caviar trade brought in $40 million a year for Russia in the late 1990s, compared with $500 million a year for poachers. A pound of poached Caspian beluga can bring $45 in Moscow and more than $1,500 in the United States, according to Russian officials. To stop the caviar pirates, often said to have ties to the Russian Mafia, the wild sturgeon was added in April 1998 to an international endangered species list that calls for producing countries to adhere to export quotas. Since then, wholesale and retail caviar prices have doubled.

 Governments of Russia and Iran are also cooperating on a sturgeon restocking program. This year the nations together released 65 million juvenile fish in the Caspian. In addition, Russia is considering creation of a state caviar monopoly in 2001, a move aimed at cutting off illegal fishing and sales and increasing the government's take.

 At Paramount Caviar, employees prepare caviar tins and gift baskets for their clients, while Aimani is already getting ready for the spring caviar harvest. About a third of Paramount's caviar is from Iran this holiday season, but in 2001, he's shooting for 60 percent. "Even if it's more expensive than the Russian caviar, the overall quality is much higher," he boasted of the Iranian variety, "so it becomes an easy sell for me."