Black pearls bred in Warmia

Termed ‘living fossils in danger’ by the WWF, sturgeons tend to have long lives, oldest recorded live to over 100 years, and can grow to up to 5.5m.
In the rarefied world of caviar, Poland is a bigger player than might be expected. And this comes down to just one company located in the idyllic surroundings of a nature reserve. Too good to be true? Except it is.

Poland isn’t a country that is necessarily associated with caviar in most people’s minds, but in fact it’s home to one of the world’s great caviar producers. And it’s not just that Antonius Caviar comes from Poland which marks the company out from other global producers.

“We don’t only produce the caviar, but we also breed the sturgeon from which the caviar comes,” says Agata Łakomiak-Winnicka, the company’s sales and marketing director and daughter of the company’s founder, the eponymous Antoni Łakomiak. Together with Agata’s brother Szymon, the three run the company’s operations.

The legal global caviar market is around 400 tonnes in volume, with Antonius Caviar producing about 5% of that total. In the past, caviar came almost exclusively from wild sturgeon, particularly from the Caspian Sea, and the market was largely controlled by Russia and Iran. Today the opposite is true, in that caviar now comes almost exclusively from farmed sturgeon and the market has opened up to include many more countries.

Poland is one of these, and Antonius Caviar punches above its weight as the only significant caviar producer in the country. In 2016 – according to figures from the 8th International Sturgeon Symposium in Vienna in 2017 – the company produced 15 tonnes, the same as Germany’s eight producers managed collectively, and significantly more than the seven tonnes produced by 10 companies from Hungary, Latvia, Holland and Switzerland combined.

Caviar is the unfertilized salt-cured eggs of sturgeons. Often dubbed ‘black pearls’, they are in strong demand around the world, making the caviar industry a much more lucrative one than most forms of fishery. Because they reach sexual maturity relatively late, sturgeon are vulnerable to overfishing, and there is a robust illegal caviar trade. China, the Russian Federation and the USA are the largest caviar exporters with Switzerland, France and Germany the biggest importers.

Antonius estimates production of 25 tonnes in 2020, which will place it third in Europe after France (est. 41 tonnes, ten producers) and Italy (est. 40 tonnes, six producers). Globally, the biggest producers are China (est. 100 tonnes, six producers), Russia (est. 60 tonnes, fifteen producers) and the USA (est. 45 tonnes, ten producers). To say that Antonius Caviar is a heavyweight amongst global caviar producing companies is an understatement.

Agata’s father, she says, is passionate about fish: “He is a breeder – he has spent his life with them.” According to the company’s website, “Antonius Caviar is the result of many years of work on breeding sturgeon and producing caviar. The brand belongs to Gosławice Fish Farm located in Konin, which has been breeding fish since 1967.”

Including its subsidiary farms in Olsztyn and Lubicz (near Toruń), Antonius manages an area of approximately 2700 hectares. It was in 1992 that Antoni and his colleagues started looking at ways to enlarge the company’s operations, and decided to introduce new fish. Sturgeon was one of them, but initially only for the meat.

A few years later Antoni started traveling around Europe, visiting different fish farms, and decided that Gosławice should change tack and breed sturgeon for caviar too. “Our fish farm was famous in Poland for being the best,” claims Agata, “so the caviar had to be amazing.”

Antoni set about gathering a group of people dedicated to this new task. “We created a team of passionate people – people who can work even 20 hours a day. Fish don’t take a day off, so neither can we,” she says. Fish farming, she stresses, is not just a case of putting fish in a pond and waiting. “Rearing sturgeon is a very complex operation because the fish are sensitive. There are so many factors that affect them – the temperature of the air, the temperature of the water, the oxygen in the water, the air pressure – many things. If you overfeed them when it’s too hot, for example, they will die.”

These archaic giants of the water face numerous threats to their survival. Despite being on Earth for millions of years, sturgeon are now vulnerable to overfishing and interference in their natural habitat.

Then there are the different ages of the fish – a very important part of the equation when it comes to sturgeon. “Until they are three to four years old we don’t know if they are male or female. Once we know – using sonar – the females are sent to the breeding facility. Sturgeon can produce caviar starting at eight years of age, but only about 5% do. Around 10-15% are ready at the age of nine. Sometimes they are only ready at 12 or 13 years old,” she says.

The area and environment in which the sturgeon are bred is of huge importance. “We take our water from the Łyna River, which borders the Napiwodzko Ramucka Forest. There’s no industry there. Chefs and buyers from around the world visit us and they see that we are not just a marketing story – they see that we really are what we say we are, which is an entirely natural producer.”

Are their visitors surprised? “Yes I think they are,” she says. “They are also surprised about Poland – when we meet them at the international trade fairs we sometimes have to explain that we’re located between Germany and Russia. But once they come, the chefs – many of whom are Michelin-starred – are impressed.”

In today’s world, where immediate results are expected, the eight-or-more year wait for the sturgeon to produce roe is an anomaly, and some producers try to hasten the process with the indoor system, a system in which the sturgeon are fed all year round and the temperature of the water is kept high.

“But the fish need time to build the vitamins and the omega-3,” says Agata. “In our opinion, the most important element for producing the quality and taste of caviar is to reflect nature, so all our three farms are opensystem, using natural free flow waters from Polish rivers. We feed our sturgeon by hand and make a break in the winter, just like in nature. In the natural environment sturgeons migrate because at different ages they need different conditions. That’s why we have three farms, not one.”

The biggest markets for Antonius Caviar are Western Europe, the UAE and the USA. At present Poland provides only a fraction of global demand, but it is an important market for them simply because they are a Polish producer, says Agata. Their caviar, she states, is served in the best Polish restaurants.

The company’s most expensive caviar is  Oscietra, harvested from females of up to 15 years of age. The price is about €2000 per kilo, which is about €60 for a 30g tin in the retail market. In this regard, this little delicacy from Poland is also one of its most prestigious exports.

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