You'd be correct to question the validity of the headline above. You're not alone in noticing the absence of nipples on a fish. In this case, the use of the term "milk" is not in the lactating sense, but in the extraction of an animal product kind of way—like milking venom from a snake. When it comes to fish, the only product you can remove from the creature—besides the flesh—are the eggs, more commonly referred to as roe.
When you think of caviar and roe, your mind first jumps to images of the disgustingly expensive sturgeon eggs, the small black beads that Russian oligarchs consume like margarine. But there are a number of fish that are harvested for caviar, and salmon and trout that are killed for their deliciously salty unfertilized spawn (roe).
Yarra Valley Caviar, about two hours drive northeast of Melbourne, usually farms around ten tons of trout and salmon caviar every year, but what makes them stand alone from their competitors is their method. Typical caviar production involves catching fish, and then killing and gutting them to access thousands of deliciously salty eggs. But at the Yarra Valley Caviar Farm, things are less gruesome, where the fish are caught, anaesthetised with clove oil, and gently massaged (or milked) free of their eggs before returning to their pool of colleagues to live on happily, some as long as ten years.
Caviar harvesting is seasonal, which takes place in autumn. For Australia, it begins every May, and the Yarra Valley trout season begins in June. I arrived at the farm at the end of the harvest; with all of the regular stock already finished, the only fish that needed to be milked were escapees—fish that took advantage of backflowing pipes at the right moment and had escaped into a small stream. The result: farmhands sweeping the stream with hand nets, trying to catch the cunning fish so they too can be milked and returned to the stock ponds.
It takes the farmhands a few minutes to catch any escaped fish that I'll be able to get my hands on for milking. When they do, it's a couple of reasonably sized trout that produce golden yellow roe. Once caught, the trout are thrown in to a tub containing a mixture of water and clove oil that knocks them out. One minute, the fish are swimming as usual until suddenly slowing to a stop, floating on their sides as if dead. It's truly bizarre. Picking up the trout by the tail, one of the farm workers shows me the milking technique, which basically involves squeezing the belly from head to tail. When his hand arrives near the tail, hundreds of golden spheres shoot out of the trout's cloaca (it took some Googling to learn this phrase, before which I'd been simply saying vagina). The eggs land in a colander, creepily similar to the one I use at home for pasta, and that's that— trout milked.
When it's my turn, I eagerly grip the limp fish by the tail with my left hand like a motorcycle handle. Using my right hand, I grip the belly under the head. Somehow it feels slippery, cold, and oddly warm at the same time. I fumble around like the first time I touched a woman's breast. Firmly applying some pressure, I push the belly of the trout from underneath the head to the tail while hovering over my own colander. And what do you know— I'm terrible at it. In no way was it the gushing stream of eggs like the professional who went before me.With nervous anticipation, I look down at the colander at my expected bounty, but find the most dismal collection of around 20 eggs instead.
I give it a few more pity strokes before a farmhand has to finish the job. After the trout's trauma is over, it's thrown into another tub of water where it slowly wakes up and is returned to the stock pond.
From there, the harvested roe are taken to a processing shed where they're pasteurized, brined, and packed into jars and containers. Around 70 percent of the caviar goes to wholesalers who sell it on to some of the country's best restaurants. The rest is sold on a consumer level at farmer's markets and selected delis, where a fifty gram jar will set you back around $20. It's well worth it though, because the final product is delicious and it's easy to see why it's a delicacy. The best part is using your tongue to push the caviar against the roof of your mouth where it pops like a salty bubble.
It's hard not to wonder what the fish think of all of this. One minute, they're mindlessly swimming with a belly full of eggs, then abruptly swept up and put to sleep, only to wake with a smaller stomach and missing a thousand or so eggs. Is this like waking up in a bathtub with a kidney missing because it's been sold on the black market?
When you think about it, calling the process 'milking' is purely to make the idea seem normal, since the end product is eggs and not milk from a teet. I spent a long time brain storming options to replace "hand-milked" with a term closer to the truth: douched, gently menstruated, or hand-aborted, but nothing ever felt as comforting as milked. From a marketing point of view, it makes sense. Nobody's rushing out to spend $20 on a small jar of "hand-ejaculated" fish eggs, but "hand-milked" like "single-origin" or "heirloom," is the kind of small farming touch that sells itself.
I believe that whenever any of us buy animal produce—whether it's meat, milk, or eggs, whatever—we should always try to source products where we know the animal lived well to the best of our abilities. This is just the caviar version of that, and I think it should be supported.
In no way am I in the fiscal position to be chowing down on caviar every weekend, but if my financial luck ever changes, I'm glad I have the option to purchase it from a fish that lived a good life.
A great life, except that time a fumbling writer accosted them in their sleep anyway.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in July, 2014.