Angus Thompson - July 14, 2011
WeeklyTimes14Jul11EACH year, 40,000 Atlantic salmon are pulled from the fresh water of the Rubicon River and milked, by hand, for their precious caviar.
Caviar is one of those gourmet delicacies whose origins diners would rather not think about as they down it with dill, capers and a flute of sparkling white.
Most would prefer not to think of it as raw fish eggs, and few would want to know how it came to be on top of the dry biscuit they are about to eat.
While I knew where caviar came from, I had never heard of salmon milking, so it was with a fair degree of intrepidation that I headed out to the Yarra Valley to take part in this rare farming technique.
It didn't take long before I was fully decked out in gloves, waders and gumboots, knee up, stroking a pregnant female as her expensive offspring spouted into the waiting colander.
Surrounded by other salmon milkers at Yarra Valley Salmon's farm at Thornton, near Lake Eildon, gently but efficiently massaging the eggs from an enormous Atlantic salmon.
Yarra Valley Salmon's Nick Gorman says any mention of "salmon milking" always raises a few eyebrows.
"We get called a lot of things," he laughs, not caring to name them for print.
The process involves scooping a net-full of mature Atlantic salmon from a freshwater pond, anaesthetising each with a small concentration of clove oil, then stroking the docile fish until all their bright orange eggs have been released.
"They're basically asleep while we're doing it and it relaxes them as well, so we're not trying to force the eggs out, they just loosen up," Nick says.
"You don't really have to apply a lot of pressure. You just rub them gently and they just shoot out."
The fish are then put into a recovery tank to wake up before being left to rejuvenate for the following year's harvest.
It's a gentler alternative to another common practice in caviar harvesting which involves injecting a needle into the fish's belly cavity to blow the eggs out before dumping the fish.
"It sounds painful and more stressful," Nick says.
"The way we're doing it is the most humane, ethical way."
Salmon milking is the fishery's specialty, with the farm hand-milking up to 40,000 fish which produce about 10 tonnes of caviar each year for restaurants and high-end shops across Australia.
The farm, nestled against a mountainous backdrop along the fast-flowing Rubicon River, is owned by a syndicate and run by business partners Nick and Mark Fox.
Mark started working on the farm in 2000 and Nick came on board in 2007.
"Growing up on a farm, I was always mucking around with yabbies and fish," Nick says.
He studied aqua-science at university before working as a commercial diver, managing a Melbourne salmon smokehouse, then working on the company's farm and in sales.
"I always had it in the back of my mind that this was something that I wanted to get into," he says. "It worked out perfectly as the opportunity came up to work with Yarra Valley Salmon."
Nick's parents also work on the farm. Mark has bought into the business and now lives in a house on the property with his family.
In total, six people work on the farm and another half a dozen trained workers arrive at milking time.
Nick and Mark pride themselves on their ethical approach to growing and harvesting their produce.
The salmon are bred onsite in a hatchery, before being transferred into 12 baby pools, then on to adolescent ponds and, finally, into large ponds where they mature before milking.
It takes up to three years before a salmon is ready to reproduce. It can produce roe for up to three years before it is sold for flesh.
Fresh water from the Rubicon River flows through large ponds where the salmon grow and produce more eggs for milking.
"We have a keen emphasis on looking after the fish and treating them really well," Nick says.
It's an exercise that has paid off for the farm with Yarra Valley Salmon's stocks almost selling out this year. Nick also attributes their product's success to the explosion of Masterchef-style cooking shows.
"Since the whole foodie revolution - everyone's so much more into their food and have a greater understanding of it," he says. "They want to know where it comes from.
"The restaurants use it in hundreds of different ways: some of them like it for the presentation, because it's such a round, colourful egg.
"I've seen it used on oysters, on hors d'oeuvres, and a lot of caterers use it. Some people might mix it through a pasta, some people might have it on their eggs or salad."
The growing success of the business has flown in the face of two natural disasters in recent years. The farm was set back after suffering devastating stock losses during the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 and, more recently in the December floods.
Nick recalls shovelling 14 tonnes of dead fish on to the back of a truck in the days following Black Saturday after the salmon were killed by a combination of heat and ash.
"It really knocked the following year's harvest around," he says.
"The second (event) was the flooding which turned the farm into one big swimming pool. All the fish, apart from getting mixed up, also escaped down the river.
"We don't know exactly, but maybe as much as four tonnes escaped down the river. The local fishermen were extremely happy with that. We weren't so happy."
Despite the setbacks, the farm is now nearing capacity, with 100 tonnes of stock swimming in its ponds.
In addition, Yarra Valley Salmon has received a bundle of accolades for its caviar and smoked salmon, including a silver medal and two bronze at this year's Sydney Royal Fine Food Show.
The new hot smoked salmon also received a bronze.
Nick and Mark are also pushing to make their caviar and salmon certified organic products, which means growing a separate lot of fish for feed in total isolation.
Secrets to success
Yarra Valley Salmon is the only aquaculture farm in Australia to hand-milk its salmon for roe.
Because the salmon are hand-milked, it is believed they produce bigger, rounder and plumper eggs.
There are plans to extend the farm's environmental credentials by having its caviar and salmon organically certified.
The salmon are farmed in large ponds, creating a more relaxed environment which allows the fish to produce more eggs.
The "foodie revolution" driven by TV cooking shows has boosted interest in Yarra Valley Salmon's products as people are keen to try quality, local produce.