Califonia Bountiful

California caviar

Nov./Dec. 2012 California Bountiful magazine

Sumptuous and sustainable

Caviar served atop a blini with crème fraîche and chives is one of many popular combinations.

Few foods conjure images of wealth, status and extravagance as much as caviar. Once exclusive to aristocrats, this delicacy is becoming more accessible to the everyday consumer—although still a splurge.

Caviar is roe, or fish eggs. And for the uninitiated, it can be somewhat of an acquired taste—salty, buttery, kind of nutty, definitely of the sea. But for connoisseurs who can afford the price, the precious little pearls are jewels for the palate.

"Some people believe the term caviar applies more generically or universally—simply fish eggs," said David Berkley, a food and wine expert based in Sacramento. "But true caviar in the world of luxury items comes from sturgeon only."

The prehistoric fish are thought to have roamed the earth's waters for millions of years, predating most modern fish. While more than two dozen different major species survive today, only some are harvested for their roe, with the most prominent coming from the Caspian and Black Sea regions: the beluga, which yields the most expensive and sought-after caviar, followed by the osetra and sevruga.

Sterling's most highly prized caviar is the Imperial, which is lighter in color and more rare. Caviar is often served with mother of pearl utensils, which help preserve its delicate flavor.

Wild caviar, however, has been linked to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss and rampant illegal trade that have driven sturgeon populations to near extinction. There are now international trade restrictions on wild caviar. Since 2005, the U.S. government has banned all imports of wild beluga caviar in an effort to help rebuild diminishing stocks.

This action has opened new doors for sustainable caviar production.

In fact, in the last 10 years, worldwide caviar production has gone from mostly wild catch coming from the Caspian Sea to nearly 100 percent coming from farms, said Peter Struffenegger, farm manager of Sterling Caviar.

Peter Struffenegger holds one of the white sturgeons being raised in aboveground tanks at Sterling Caviar. After harvest, their roe is washed, strained, dried, weighed, salted and packed into containers of varying sizes.

Located in Elverta, about 10 miles north of Sacramento, Sterling Caviar raises white sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish in North America. Its roe compares to that of the osetra. Native to the Pacific Coast, the fish comes into estuaries such as the Sacramento River to spawn. It is one of two sturgeon species that live in California, the other being green sturgeon. But green sturgeon is not particularly tasty and its roe does not make very good caviar, Struffenegger said.

The farm started with wild white sturgeon from the Sacramento River, which provided the spawning stock. All the fish the farm raises are derived from that original stock, meaning the farm does not take any more fish from the wild. That makes the operation truly sustainable because it is not affecting the resource, Struffenegger said.

The fish are grown in fresh water and contained in aboveground tanks as large as 40 feet in diameter and 9 feet deep. It takes three years before the sturgeon's gender is even evident. At that time, the farm keeps the females and sells the males for meat, which Struffenegger compares to halibut and describes as "very firm, white flesh and no bones."

By age 8 to 10, when the sturgeon weighs about 80 pounds, the eggs are harvested. This takes place in the spring, although the product won't be ready for sale until three months after that. Caviar sales usually peak around the holidays.

During harvest, the fish's ovaries are removed and the prized eggs extracted. The roe is then washed, strained, dried and weighed, after which malossol—which means "little salt" in Russian—is added as a preservative before the caviar is put in containers. The harvested fish is also sold for meat.

About 9 percent of the sturgeon's body weight is the roe, depending on its age, the stock, time of year and the ovaries. But there's no way to tell from looking at the fish's exterior what's inside in terms of roe yield and quality, Struffenegger said.

"You might have a dinky fish that can yield 50 percent of its body weight in caviar, and you can have a huge fish that would yield 3 percent of its body weight," he said.

At $2.50 a gram, there is no waste during the harvest process, he noted. An 1,800-gram container of this caviar—that is, nearly 4 pounds—is worth $4,500 at retail.

Berkley, who describes himself as a "very enthusiastic customer" of Sterling Caviar and who owned a gourmet grocery in Sacramento for nearly 24 years, said he's been a longtime proponent of the work the farm has been doing, even when Russian caviar from the Caspian Sea was available. He said not only is the product raised in a sustainable manner, but the fact that it is farmed allows Sterling to have more quality control, which ensures a better product in the end.

"I'm a real fan," Berkley said. "I remember the first time I tasted (Sterling Caviar), I thought, darn, this is as good if not better than most. I've served Sterling to (people with) palates that are extremely fine without them knowing it, and they thought it was exceptional."

Ching Lee

Caviar etiquette

Quality caviar, says David Berkley, "should have an oily, briny nose but not fishy," adding that the eggs should be "good size and firm with some separation."

Here are some suggestions on how to enjoy good caviar:

Never serve it with stainless stain spoons, as the metal will interfere with the taste. Use materials such as mother of pearl, bone, tortoise shell or horn.

For purists, there's nothing like plain "just give me a spoon" caviar, maybe with a light squeeze of lemon.

To add some accent flavors, popular accompaniments include chopped egg yolks or egg whites, chopped onions, shallots, chives or parsley, black pepper, butter and sour cream or crème fraîche. Serve it on black Russian bread such as rye, toast points or blini—a thin, tiny pancake. Or scoop out the middle of a roasted fingerling potato, fill it with caviar and top it with a touch of crème fraîche or sour cream. A dollop of caviar on soups such as Russian borscht also is delicious.

Beverages that go well with caviar include dry champagne, which is the common pairing in the U.S. The traditional Russian combo is still vodka, but stick with an artisan variety made with potatoes, like Stolichnaya, Berkley said. Akvavit (or aquavit), a northern European spirit flavored with caraway seed, also pairs well with caviar.

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