Meet the caviar kingpin — the secret dealer to the A-list
He’s the man who Kate Moss, Keira Knightley and Elton John rely on, but what does he make of the cheap Lidl stuff and TikTokers who ‘bump’ their fishy fix, asks Sacha Bonsor
You live in London, can you find me a small tin of caviar?” a friend texts me. He wants to splash out for Valentine’s Day, but caviar is in short supply in rural Devon, where he lives. He’ll be in London that evening, he says, he can pick it up then. My mind races through the options: Harrods, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason. “Sorry,” I reply. “Can’t get into town in time.” My friend’s having none of it.
And so it is that I find myself driving towards White City in search of the suitably posh-sounding Princesse d’Isenbourg et Cie, purveyor, according to its website, of “London’s finest caviar”, as well as its own champagne, truffles, saffron, salmon and foie gras terrine. I have in mind a smart delicatessen, tucked off a grand, leafy street. Instead I find myself in an industrial backwater, staring at a self-storage unit. It’s only on the third telephone call that someone appears, bustling me inside to where the owner is waiting.
He is dressed in a white lab coat, and laid out in front of him are various-sized tins of caviar, displayed atop a large wooden pupitre (an old-fashioned champagne rack) that has been converted into a table. Surrounding him is the largest collection of bric-a-brac I’ve seen: floor-to-ceiling shelves overflowing with china plates, goblets, a taxidermy sturgeon, two wooden carts, dolls, packing crates, umbrellas and fishing nets. And while Santa’s grotto springs to mind, it soon transpires that I’m sitting in one of London’s best-kept secrets. For more than 30 years Gunther Corsten-Gerhards has been serving caviar and champagne to some of the world’s priciest hotels and restaurants, as well as its most discerning clientele: Elton John, Kate Moss, Keira Knightley, Damien Hirst, Emma Thompson and Ralph Fiennes included. I’m later told by a mutual friend that David Cameron is a fan. Is it because Gunther’s married to a princess?
“I’m not,” he laughs. His wife, Pari, is Persian, he says, but the name of his business belongs to an old friend, whose family seat is a castle in Birstein, Germany. “We met when I moved to London in the early 1980s. I’d recently sold a language business and I was wondering what [to do] next. My father, a surgeon, was German, my mother Swiss, and I’d been brought up to — how shall I put it? — appreciate the finer things in life,” he says in his strong German accent. “I’d always dreamt of a top-of-the-range larder business but I needed a suitable name, so I said to the princess, why don’t you help me out. And she did.”
This was 1985, when the world’s best caviar still came from the Caspian Sea. Helped by his wife’s contacts, they obtained a licence to trade in Iran, and hotels, restaurants and airlines followed. “At our height we were supplying about eight tonnes of caviar a year to airlines alone.”
These days Corsten-Gerhards sources his caviar from an aquafarm in Italy (harvesting caviar from wild sturgeon is now illegal) and, as has always been the case, the quality ranges from fantastic to medium and very poor caviar, he says. His caviar costs from £49.45 to £189 for 50g. What is the difference? “The time the fish takes to produce the eggs. Instead of taking six years, as is common, the beluga fish, for example, takes 18-plus years, during which time you have to keep them fed, housed, looked after. So it’s an expensive venture and costs a lot more.” Lumpfish caviar, he points out, which Lidl has previously sold for £3.29 for 100g, is from the lumpfish, so is technically not caviar at all. True caviar needs to come from one of the 28 species of sturgeon.
Even when it comes to real caviar, though, cost doesn’t equate with taste in his opinion. His favourite is his “Flawless” range, which he sells only to his “inner circle”. “It costs £89.50 per 50g, and is from the fish’s second gestation.” Ordinarily, he explains, a fish has only one “harvest”, during which it is killed to remove the eggs. Discarding the first round of eggs and waiting for a second entails keeping the fish alive for longer, occupying space others could fill, thus making it rarer and more expensive. It also results in a superior taste, in his opinion. “You can really taste the egg yolk and white side by side.” He doesn’t sell it more widely, he says, because of its scarcity, which is why he keeps it back for special clients.
For those of us not in his inner sanctum, the key is that caviar should never taste fishy, he says. “The fishier the caviar, the worse the quality. That’s number one. Number two is that it mustn’t be slushy. You need to be able to discern each egg in your mouth.” A good, middle-of-the-road option is oscietra, named after a sturgeon that produces its eggs after eight years, which he sells at £62.50 for a 50g tin. “It has a great flavour, a good grain and a nice appearance.” This week, his busiest of the year because of Valentine’s Day, it’s this one that’s most popular.
But as with any caviar, it must be served correctly. “Don’t serve it on a spoon made of precious metal, because the sulphur in the eggs will start cleaning the metal and lead to an unruly taste,” he says. “Stainless steel is fine, horn or mother-of-pearl is preferable.” What about lemon? “Never!” he almost shouts. “It’s like adding sugar to a steak. Lemons are sour and acidic and they kill the taste. All these additions — lemon, chopped onions, chives — used to be added, along with a swig of vodka, to camouflage the caviar’s bacteria. But now we can guarantee cold chain there’s no need for it.” Crème fraîche “pairs well”, he concedes, “but a creamy mash potato is preferable”. He would always opt for spoons of pure caviar, although a mini croissant is a nice accompaniment. “Cut it in half and dress the open parts with as much caviar as possible.”
In terms of what to drink with it, it’s champagne only. White wine is out “because there’s too much going on” and spirits “strip the taste buds. Champagne is more subtle.”
Recently caviar has been “having a moment”, I say, recalling Dua Lipa’s viral tweet picturing a Colin the Caterpillar cake alongside caviar, as well as the celebrity trend of “caviar bumping” by eating small amounts of roe off the skin — the food equivalent of a tequila shot. “God forgive them,” is all he will say about that. Vegan caviar, then? “Absolutely not! Laboratory stuff!”
Out of his smorgasbord of products, his own-label champagne (from vineyards near Épernay and £66 a bottle) is his second best seller, and his favourite brand other than his own is Gosset Grand Réserve (Waitrose, £55). “It’s very round, very elegant, and the bottle has a wonderful shape.” If you want to guarantee a good champagne, he says, never pay less than £28 to £30 a bottle. Price aside, how do you discern a good one? “Look for the shape of the cork. It often forms a triangular shape but it should assume the same straight line as the neck into which it was set. This is only possible if the cork has been in the bottle for three or more years. Additional bottle-ageing means the bubbles become more elegant and the champagne assumes its own character.”
Always drink it out of a flute that caves in at the upper end, he says, to reduce the liquid’s surface area and retain the bubbles. No coupes, then. “And serve it with something light, like salmon or even foie gras.” He sells the latter in a terrine, and his recipe is a hotly guarded secret. “But in short we keep it really simple — I have a lot of respect for Marco Pierre White but you cannot add port or cognac to foie gras, as he used to do. It’s far too rich for this.”
Before I leave, a £62.50 for 50g pot of £62.50 oscietra caviar in hand, Corsten-Gerhards gives me a quick tour of his warehouse, including his bric-a-brac, gathered over a lifetime of travels. Does he have a favourite item? “Our two Swiss carts. They were used to haul provisions and children during the annual cattle herding in the Alps, and they remind me of summer, green pastures and the best things in life.” Something, it has become clear, that he knows quite a bit about.
To learn more see: caviar.co.uk