I have milked my first salmon! That's the correct word for harvesting eggs, or roe, from salmon, and it's not nearly as hard as milking cows or goats. I was at Yarra Valley Caviar (which is technically in Upper Goulburn, rather than the Yarra Valley), on a property fed by the Rubicon River.
Nicholas Gorman took us through (I was with the wonderful Lyndey Milan from Sydney) the process of raising salmon. They are hatched, kept indoors for a time, then move out into increasingly large ponds every six months. The water comes from the river â€“ beautifully clean water, monitored constantly, on entry into the property, and on its return to the river. When salmon are about three years old, they are mature enough to breed. In the wild â€“ in Alaska, for instance â€“ salmon will have gone out to sea, and will return to their spawning grounds to breed. They swim upriver, make a kind of nest in the gravel, and lay their eggs. Male salmon squirt sperm over the eggs. And then the adults die. The smolt (as salmon is known at the egg stage) do the best they can.
It's a pretty rugged process that involves huge physical changes in both male and female salmon at the end of their lives (the males look hideous at this point). Female salmon stop eating, they change colour â€“ all their colour goes into their eggs. If you found them in the wild, you wouldn't eat them. They're falling apart, just about. Good eating for bears, but not people.
When they are farmed, the process is modified. The first owner of Yarra Valley Caviar (who was raising salmon for fish, not eggs) discovered that it was easy to milk the fish. They were dying because they were egg-bound, and he discovered that if you lift a salmon, its eggs will fall out.
It's slightly more complicated. The female fish are sedated, then fished out of the water and held over tubs. Their bright orange eggs tumble out of them, and a little gently massage gets all the eggs out. They're thinner, their bellies flaccid, and they are returned to the water. They come to â€“ like people coming out of an anaesthetic. They open and close their mouths, move their tails, and gradually begin to swim again. They're in pretty poor condition, really. After about ten minutes, they are returned to their ponds, and after a few months, regain their condition. At that point, they can be eaten. Or they will repeat the process, and be milked the following year.
This year, Yarra Valley Caviar will be releasing first harvest salmon eggs â€“ that is, the roe of fish that have never been milked before. The eggs are softer in texture, with a slightly different flavour â€“ a bit brighter. But the older roe are delicious, too. I've been eating them on toast, on potato pancakes with sour cream, with smoked salmon and crÃ¨me fraiche. And at Rochford Winery restaurant, where we lunched after the milking, the chef scooped the eggs on to oysters. Very very fine.
Yarra Valley Caviar scores for me on every count. A great product to eat. An environmentally sensitive product. Sustainable in every way. As soon as you see it again, go for it. It's seasonal. I'll list some of the stockists as soon as I have them.