From Australian Waters to global palates: A caviar success story with Indigenous partnerships

04 Aug 2023

From Australian Waters to global palates: A caviar success story with Indigenous partnerships featured image

If it looks like caviar and tastes just as delicious, then caviar it is, even if it’s sourced from Australian fish rather than sturgeon or lumpfish from Iran, Russia or Europe, and costs considerably less.

Nick Gorman doesn’t mind what we call it, preferring instead that we enjoy its flavour and the ‘pop’ it makes in the mouth. The savoury fish eggs, or roe, produced by Yarra Valley Caviar comes from an aquaculture farm north-east of Melbourne, an area perhaps better known for artisan dairy products, yet it in the past decade it has become the home of one of Australia’s most acclaimed niche food producers.

Today, the company Nick co-owns with fellow aquatic science graduate Mark Fox produces around 30 tonnes of fish roe products a year, hand milking (the extraction of eggs without harming the fish) varieties like Atlantic Salmon, Rainbow and Brooke Trout reared in their on-site facilities. Yarra Valley Caviar’s sustainable growing techniques and ethical fish husbandry practices are recognised as world class, and so are the products they produce, including red, orange and black caviar, described as ‘pearls’, retailed in high-class packaging and online, and served up in the finest restaurants.

In an enticing article in The Australian Financial Review prior to the 2022 Melbourne Cup, a time when champagne and caviar are on many people’s minds – who could forget the champion ‘Black Caviar’ – Nick was interviewed with a well-known chef who had planned to use imported caviar but chose the home grown roes instead.

‘I wanted more of the pop,’ the chef said, praising the firm’s ‘Golden balls of Australian caviar packed with Omega-3.’

In 2014, Nick was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to investigate key aspects of fish roe production for the Australian domestic and export market. The aim was to help the Australian aquaculture industry to be more self-sufficient, in terms of food security, and less reliant on imported products.

His foresight and the support of the Fellowship paid off handsomely, creating a regionally based industry that is competing with the best products in the world, boosting local employment and providing culinary delight to consumers Australia-wide as well as overseas. Wool, wheat, barley… now the country is becoming famous for our caviar!

‘Through some Churchill Fellowship-related contacts we have been able to establish export clients and get our factory export approved,’ Nick says.

‘This allowed us to spread our wings and really get our brand out to the world. The networking through some of these contacts was a key driver in getting the export process started, which can be quite daunting for a small producer like us.

‘We found that some of our unique products were of real interest to chefs in some countries and now accounts for around a tenth of our total revenue.’

Innovative products include Bloody Shiraz Gin Caviar, in association with a locally renowned distillery, Four Pillars Gin, and bottarga, a salted, cured fish roe sourced from mullet. This solid, spreadable delicacy is increasingly popular in hors d’oeuvres or an adjunct to cooked dishes such as pasta.

On occasions, chefs have been invited to the facility to observe and even participate in the egg ‘milking’ process, giving them a proper understanding of the pond-to-plate journey.

In 2022, Nick received support under the Churchill Trust’s Impact Funding, the focus being to work with First Nations people from the Yuin community on Walbunja country (South Coast NSW) to develop a draft business plan for the processing, sales, and marketing of local roe products. The aim is to support community members in creating processing, sales and marketing of roe products sourced from their fishing activities.

‘The roe project aims to capture the value of roe products at the local level,’ Nick explains.

Products are being developed to increase the return from low value species such as mullet and Australian salmon. The not-for-profit Joonga Land and Water Aboriginal Corporation, in collaboration with the Australian National Centre for Ocean Research and Yarra Valley Caviar, have identified an Aboriginal led commercial fisheries business opportunity.

An existing Aboriginal fishing business, and another planned, would partner with Joonga to focus on the capture of mullet using traditional fishing practices and handle the extraction of roe for further processing into the high value bottarga.

‘Bottarga preserves well and fetches a high market price (about AUD264/kg retail),’ Nick says.

‘The mullet roe is extracted by skilled operators, then dried and processed by frequent turning to ensure even exposure to sunlight, together with hourly salting. The process step takes up to seven days during which the roe changes from a highly perishable product to one that deteriorates less quickly.’

Entering this market will benefit both the fishermen and the wider Aboriginal community in three major ways – Social, Economical and Technological. Yarra Valley Caviar has offered to buy bottarga from Joonga once they begin processing.  Additionally, the local tourism industry will be marketed to by the provision of these products through culturally guided tours and experiences.

Nick continues to work closely with a Joonga planning group to explore the development of employment, business and self-determination opportunities which will see potentially lucrative seafood-related businesses established in the area around the area.

‘From experience, I had the skills and knowledge to contribute to the business plan development process which can help the overall Sea Country Plan to cover a variety of initiatives of benefit to Indigenous people.

‘I know the products well and, through my own business, have a good knowledge of potential markets, both here in Australia and overseas. Contributions are being brought into the project from the community itself and the University of Wollongong.’

Nick believes the project is also of interest to Churchill Fellow fish folks and to fishery funders at both the national (Fisheries Research and Development Corporation) and State levels (NSW Department of Primary Industries).

Just as importantly, ‘It will also be of interest to State and Federal agencies with an interest in Indigenous affairs,’ he adds.

At every level, the opportunities are vast, important and mouth-watering.

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