In 1984, the Melbourne Age ran an article announcing the beginnings of a new fishery on Australia’s northwest coast. “Australian scampi on sale soon” the headline read. At the time, the CSIRO described scampi as “deep-water lobsters which are considerably bigger than banana prawns and live at depths of 200 to 500 metres”. It would be another thirty years before an exotic by-product of that fishery hit the market – scampi caviar.
The new scampi fishery had been discovered by a research trawler in 1982. It was centred on an area some 90 miles northwest of Port Hedland, Western Australia, and was initially managed by the Primary Industry Department and the Western Australian Fisheries Department. The deep sea fishery, harvesting scampi and other crustaceans, is now managed by the Commonwealth of Australia and there are only two licensed operators.
The crustaceans had previously been imported from Europe where they were also known as Dublin Bay prawns. By 1985, Beppi’s Restaurant in Sydney had Australian scampi on the menu. And cookery writer, Elise Pascoe, was telling readers of the Sydney Morning Herald that:
Scampi are available in commercial quantities for the first time this summer. Anyone who has savoured this delicacy in Italy will know that theirs is probably the sweetest flesh of all shellfish. Trawled at great depths off the North-West Cape in Western Australia, they are snap-frozen “green” and flown to the markets, where they are thawed.
Scampi carry their roe (eggs) on the outside of their bodies, under the tail. For three decades, the roe was regarded as a waste product and discarded. But researchers and producers, looking for ways to reduce waste in the seafood industry, eventually began to explore the idea of turning the roe into a luxury caviar product. In 2014, one company, Shark Bay Seafoods, began working with Perth’s Curtin University to examine processing and packaging options and to determine the shelf life of scampi caviar.
Though not quite as expensive as a tin of sapphires, Shark Bay’s wild scampi caviar certainly has a jewel-like lustre. It shines a deep, bottom-of-the-ocean blue – when chef Josh Niland came across the product he was blown away by both its colour and its flavour. Tasting it is like “getting dumped by a wave,” he says. At Niland’s Sydney restaurant Saint Peter, he tops Clair de Lune oysters with a spoonful of the roe, adding “a really briny, heightened salinity to the oyster, with a much more definite taste of the ocean”.
Despite its name, Shark Bay Scampi Caviar does not come from Western Australia’s Shark Bay area. The Shark Bay Seafoods company does fish in the World Heritage Area of Shark Bay, but for prawns and scallops. They also have a deep sea fishing operation, based in Point Sampson in Western Australia’s remote Kimberly region. This fishery harvests the scampi as well as other deep-sea species.
The scampi roe is naturally blue. It is wild-harvested from November through March, frozen at sea and flown to the processing facility in Brisbane. There it is meticulously hand-sorted by “the fish girl”, Umar Nguyen, to remove any damaged eggs. It is then packed, with a little salt as the only additive. The caviar is kept chilled. It has a shelf life of just 10 weeks and is sold through a wholesaler to seafood merchants across Australia.
Unlike sturgeon caviar, which has a creamy quality on the tongue, scampi caviar has a lower fat content and pops in your mouth. Its umami flavour and sea-saltiness pair well with other foods or it can be savoured on its own. At the moment, only Aussies can enjoy Shark Bay Wild Scampi Caviar. With a short season and limited supply, there are no immediate plans to export the product. It’s not cheap. A 25-gram jar will set you back around $105. During the season, it can be ordered online (ask Google) or ordered for you by quality seafood retailers.