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April 28, 2003

Move Over, Beluga  

American fish farms are producing caviar so good it rivals the Caspian’s best


Domestic caviar is making a comeback. For those of you who didn't realize it ever went away, the U.S. was the world's major supplier of this fish-egg delicacy back in the 1800s, when sturgeon were abundant in American waters from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. But overfishing depleted the stock, and by the early 20th century, the Caspian Sea, situated between Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran, became the wellspring of caviar.

Now, Caspian sturgeon -- especially the kind that yields the famed beluga variety -- are almost fished out. In addition, the fall of the Soviet Union weakened fishing controls, leading to pirating and rampant mislabeling. And pollution has degraded the quality of even legally produced caviar there.

In the meantime, efforts begun over the past two decades by American fisheries to farm sturgeon are yielding fruit -- or berries, as the briney eggs are called. A dozen or so environmentally friendly farms are producing caviar from the white sturgeon of the West Coast, lake sturgeon of the south, and assorted sturgeon relatives native to the U.S., such as the paddlefish and hackleback.

Besides being politically correct, the best American caviar rivals the quality of the imports. It's also cheaper. An ounce of beluga can fetch $100 or more compared with $20 to $90 an ounce for domestic offerings.

For these reasons, American caviar is the choice of a growing number of connoisseurs and chefs. At the stylish RM in New York, chef Rick Moonen now serves only American caviar. He recalls a blind tasting of Caspian caviar a few years ago with some of his staff. The descriptions ranged from "dirty lake water" to "rubber tire."

At a recent tasting at his restaurant, Moonen served Sterling white sturgeon caviar produced by Stolt Sea Farm of Sacramento, which raises the fish in well-water tanks. The caviar had a clean, nutty taste -- and judging by how quickly it disappeared, it was a crowd pleaser. Also on the menu were tiny black roe from the farm-raised Missouri paddlefish -- named for its odd, paddle-like snout -- and voluptuous trout "caviar" from Sunburst Trout Farm in Haywood County, N.C. By law, only sturgeon eggs can be labeled caviar without the name of the fish preceding the word.

American caviar may have a way to go before it has the same snob appeal as its Caspian kin. But chances are if your guests even notice you're serving a domestic variety, they'll be favorably impressed.



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