Just outside Biganos, off the main road between Bordeaux and Arcachon, lies the Moulin de la Cassadotte, home to one of three Girondin pr...

Moulin de la Cassadotte: the flour mill turned caviar farm

Just outside Biganos, off the main road between Bordeaux and Arcachon, lies the Moulin de la Cassadotte, home to one of three Girondin producers of a luxury delicacy: caviar. 

The mill was originally completed in 1834 and was the property of one Mr Courbin, a man from nearby Mios. His mill sought to capitalise on the current of the lively Lacanau stream, which flows into the river Leyre (which in turn flows into the waters of the Bassin d’Arcachon). The water mill ground out flour for more than a hundred years, ceasing production after the Second World War, by which time it could not compete with large-scale mills such as the Grand Moulins establishment in Bordeaux.

The mill fell into disuse before being acquired, in 1968, by fish-farming enthusiasts Messrs Carré and Ricaud. They dug out an area which was converted into a basin for trout farming, the fish being sold on to restaurants, fishmongers and pond-owners in the area. In the 1970s, other ponds were added and open to the public. The mill even ran its own restaurant.

The mill as it looked during its trout-farming days.
Come the 1980s, France’s national institute for research into environmental and agricultural science and technology, known at the time as the CEMAGREF (Centre national du machinisme agricole, du génie rural, des eaux et des forêts), was studying means of preserving sturgeons, the European species of which (Acipenser sturio) had once been abundant in the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. At the time, Russian immigrants had taught locals the art of producing caviar, with distribution peaking in the 1950s before tailing off ahead of a period when the species was threatened with extinction. Fishing for sturio was eventually banned in 1982.

The CEMAGREF had imported specimens of the freshwater baerii sturgeon (Acipenser baerii) from Siberia with a view to studying the reproduction and breeding of the species in captivity. Cassadotte, on the strength of Mr Carré’s fish-rearing credentials, was selected to partner the institute in this endeavour and the 200 fish, born in 1982, were transferred to new specially-built ponds. The first reproductions were achieved in the mid-1980s ahead of the first caviar being produced in 1993. The trout-farming activity soon ceased as production at what was France’s first dedicated caviar farm gained momentum. The output was labelled “Caviar de Gironde”.

Remnants of a flour mill past...
The caviar farm, under new ownership since 2006 and trading under the name “Caviar de France”, has gone from strength to strength, while adhering to a number of principles aimed at ensuring the quality of its production. Employee Nicolas Castro explained to me that “The sturgeons are reared in pools which continue to be fed by the clean water of the Lacanau stream. A natural slope maintains a constant current for the fish to swim in. They are gradually moved downstream before being matured in a final pool filled with extremely pure spring water drawn from a depth of 220 metres.” This means the caviar does not have the “earthy” flavour that was often associated with local production in the past.

The fish, which enjoy a protein-rich low-fat diet, are constantly monitored by a five-strong team of specialists throughout an eight-year cycle, “from egg to egg or roe to roe” in the words of Nicolas. The finishing touches to the hand-crafted caviar are carried out in high-tech “laboratories”. This all adds to the pricetag of the end-product. “When you consider all the time, attention, food and infrastructure that goes into each tin of caviar, you get a sense of why it’s so expensive,” Nicolas says reassuringly!

The "laboratories" and sturgeon swimming in their final spring-water pool.
Two distinct types of caviar are produced all year round at Cassodotte. Nicolas Castro: “The first is branded “Diva” and is natural caviar without any preservatives. It’s just sturgeon roe and salt and makes for a relatively sweet product. The other is “Ébène”; here the caviar is matured for three to five months and its flavour has more character!” The one-ton annual production, which may increase in the coming years with the addition of further ponds, is sold on to restaurants, shops and individual customers.

Rest assured, other varieties of local caviar are also available, with similar facilities operating in Le Teich and Saint-Sulpice-et-Cameyrac. However, Nicolas claims that he’s painstakingly tried specimens of each and that the Cassadotte mill’s production “wins hands-down”. We’ll have to take his arguably partisan word for it, unless anyone is willing to join me in a marathon caviar-tasting session!

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