Amy Cortese


View Original

June 20, 2004

Savoring Domestic Caviar, Leaving the Guilt on Ice


A FEW years ago, Paul Wade, executive chef at the Little Nell, a resort in Aspen, Colo., was becoming concerned about the fate of the Caspian Sea sturgeon. This primitive fish, whose eggs make the world's most coveted caviar, was in perilous decline after years of overfishing and loss of habitat.

Mr. Wade banned Caspian caviar from his restaurant, instead serving roe from the paddlefish, a relative of the sturgeon that is native to the southern United States. The switch did not go over well with his customers. ''I took a lot of flak,'' he said.

These days, many of those customers are converts. ''They're all on the bandwagon,'' said Mr. Wade, who now offers American white sturgeon caviar as well as trout roe from the United States.

Few things evoke a sense of luxury the way caviar does. But many people now regard it as a guilty pleasure, as organizations like Caviar Emptor, a coalition of environmental groups, have focused attention on the plight of the Caspian sturgeon. Caviar Emptor estimates that the population of beluga sturgeon, the largest and best known of the species, has plummeted 90 percent in 20 years, and nearly 40 percent from 2001 to 2002 alone. In April, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared the beluga sturgeon a threatened species, a step short of the endangered status for which environmental groups lobbied. In the next few weeks, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international governing body, may impose new restrictions or even a ban on beluga caviar.

Whatever action is taken, beluga caviar is already scarce. Pollution has degraded its quality in some areas, and lax regulatory enforcement has made it easier to mislabel other products under its name. Iranian beluga, considered relatively free from such problems, has shot as high as $140 an ounce.

But there are options. Domestic caviar is catching on with top chefs and food critics, who say its quality now approaches, if not matches, that of Caspian varieties. From Mississippi to California, producers have nurtured native sturgeon through aquatic farming and controlled fishing, aiming to offer the panache but not the guilt.

Domestic caviar is now served by chefs like Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Charlie Trotter at the Chicago restaurant that bears his name and Rick Moonen of RM in Manhattan.

Are there holdouts who will still demand Caspian caviar? ''There are always going to be people who believe that caviar from the Caspian Sea is the best quality,'' said Eve Vega, executive director for the Americas at Petrossian, the caviar emporium in New York, Los Angeles and Paris.

The United States was once awash in caviar. In the late 1800's, when sturgeon were plentiful, the nation produced about 30 tons a year. Caviar was so abundant it was offered at bars as a salty, free snack.

Overfishing soon depleted stocks, and Russia supplanted the United States as the most renowned producer. Caviar can be called caviar only if the eggs come from sturgeon, a bony-plated fish. Once harvested, the eggs are cleaned and lightly mixed with salt. The color of sturgeon roe can range from golden to glistening black, but the eggs' size, texture and, especially, taste determine the quality.

There are 24 types of sturgeon worldwide, but the most famous come from the landlocked Caspian. The beluga sturgeon can grow to 2,000 pounds and live more than 100 years. Its eggs yield an almost buttery caviar that appeals to connoisseurs, although some people say its popularity derives from its easily pronounced name. Osetra, another Caspian caviar, is generally considered the second-most-desirable variety. Its medium-sized beads have a nutty flavor.

Several sturgeon varieties -- including Atlantic, lake and hackleback -- are native to the United States. Walter's Caviar in Darien, Ga., offers caviar from wild Atlantic sturgeon, the fishing of which is regulated. Its eggs can be less firm than Caspian or American farmed caviar, but at about $15 an ounce it is a bargain.

The choice of many chefs is farmed American white sturgeon. Native to the Pacific Northwest, it produces a black roe comparable in taste to osetra -- and is sometimes referred to as California osetra.

Two big sturgeon farmers are Stolt Sea Farms in Elverta, Calif., which is owned by the Stolt Sea Farm Group of Norway and markets its caviar under the Sterling name, and Tsar Nicoulai, a family-run operation in San Francisco that sells its California Estate Osetra brand as well as imported varieties. Petrossian sells a private brand, Transmontanus, after the Latin for white sturgeon.

No matter what you call it, the white sturgeon is most responsible for the resurgence of American caviar. ''California will be the caviar capital of the world,'' said Dafne Engstrom, the co-owner with her husband, Mats, of Tsar Nicoulai.

If that happens, it will be at least in part because of the couple's untiring efforts. They started making caviar in 1979, when they noticed that local fishermen were catching sturgeon but throwing out the roe, and began farming the fish in 1984.

It requires patience: it takes four years before the sex of the fish can be determined and at least eight before females produce eggs. Next year, Tsar Nicoulai will produce 10 tons of caviar from 3,000 sturgeon.

Groups like Caviar Emptor commend sturgeon farmers like Stolt and Tsar Nicoulai for using ecologically sound approaches, with water recycled through wetlands and fed back into the tanks to cut waste.

Domestic white sturgeon caviar is typically priced a few dollars less than imported osetra. Tsar Nicoulai's is $51 an ounce -- $54 for its ''select'' and for its imported osetra. Stolt's prices range from $38 for its basic variety to $49 for its premium.

LESS expensive products are made from fish other than sturgeon. Paddlefish, a close kin of the sturgeon, makes a pleasant, mild-tasting roe that typically sells for around $30 an ounce. Osage Catfisheries, in Osage Beach, Mo., is one supplier. And eggs from a wide range of fish, including trout, salmon and whitefish, can be processed like caviar. Sunburst Trout Farm in Canton, N.C., offers bright orange roe from freshwater trout at $10 an ounce.

Tsar Nicoulai offers whitefish roe from the Great Lakes. These tiny, pale, mellow eggs are punched up by flavors like ginger and wasabi and sell for $16 for two ounces. They add color and flavor to omelets or fish, and can be served as hors d'oeuvres.

Of course, the only way to discover the nuances of caviar is in side-by-side tastings. Petrossian's New York restaurant offers workshops, except in summer, for $175 that include samples of domestic and imported caviar. In San Francisco, Tsar Nicoulai's new cafe in the Ferry Building offers a sampler of American caviars for $15. A premium sampler, at $46, has California and imported caviars. The fun may be in trying to decide which are which.


If you want to sample caviar, whether costly beluga or perfectly acceptable domestic varieties, here are some considerations:

Know caviar terms. The freshest caviar, for example, is often labeled malossol, meaning lightly salted. Pressed caviar is made from broken or lower-quality eggs.

Keep caviar cold. For serving, place the jar on a bed of ice. Serve with a spoon made of mother-of-pearl, gold or even plastic. Silver imparts a metallic taste.

Don't overwhelm the taste of good caviar. Simple toast points or blini will do. If the roe is of lesser quality, serve it with a generous dollop of something creamy, like crème fraîche or sour cream, to offset the briny flavor. You can also add capers or minced hard-boiled egg or onion.

Try inexpensive roe in party hors d'oeuvres -- or on top of deviled eggs, boiled potatoes or smoked fish with some crème fraîche.

Pair caviar with sparkling wine or vodka.


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