A Westcountry sturgeon farmer producing Britain’s first commercially-grown caviar has received hate mail accusing him of dumping unwanted fish.
Now Ken Benning has hit back – pointing out that smoked sturgeon is itself in demand at top restaurants.
Mr Benning, owner of Exmoor Caviar, said: "We’ve had some nasty emails from misinformed people.
"There’s a general perception that the fish is killed purely for its eggs – the caviar – and then thrown away. But that’s completely not true.
"None of our fish is wasted. Even the heads are boiled up for stock.
"Sturgeon meat is wonderfully fatty and perfect for smoking. The caviar has all the glamour and the luxury image but smoked sturgeon is absolutely crucial to our business."
Mr Benning, 38, founded his company three years ago after buying a share in a fish farm on Exmoor in North Devon.
He is now selling caviar to Selfridges and sturgeon meat to leading Michelin-starred chefs such as Simon Rogan, who next month takes over Claridge’s restaurant, formerly run by Gordon Ramsey.
Species include the Acipenser Baeri, which takes around six years to produce a single caviar egg, and the Huso Huso, which needs up to 20 years to make Imperial Beluga Caviar.
Farms have flourished since the harvesting and export of wild sturgeon caviar in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea became severely restricted by international conservation agreements nine years ago.
But until now British restaurants have had to import caviar – sold for around £2 per gram when salted and tinned - from Europe, Russia or Italy.
Mr Benning stocks between 5,000 and 10,000 fish at any one time. Currently around 1,000 per year go for smoking – roughly ten tons.
He says the spring water on Exmoor means both British sturgeon and caviar can compete with established foreign suppliers.
"The trick to all of this is the quality of the water," he said.
"Sturgeon are bottom-feeders – they will feed in ponds among all the stagnant water.
"When I tried some smoked sturgeon in Germany I could taste the pond in it. Our meat doesn’t have that problem.
"We are pumping 14 million litres of Exmoor spring water through our ponds every day.
"It’s fresh, pure and it makes a real difference."