Back Page: Fish Stories

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Caviar is an acquired taste that Robb Report has long savored. We published our first story on the delicacy in January 1983 (“Caviar: Tastes of Elegance”) and have covered it many times since: in September 1992 (“Unscrambling the Myth and Mystery of Caviar”), June 1999 (“A Movable Feast”), January 2000 (“The Sushi Sequel”), and August 2001 (“Indelicate Delicacies”). But only recently, in a January 2004 article titled “Aqua Cultured,” have we discussed caviar made from the roe of farm-raised sturgeon. The story ran at a time when connoisseurs were encouraged to try the cultivated form of caviar. Now, as discussed in this issue, in “A Matter of Taste”, that encouragement has become a mandate. The 2004 story introduced the notion of farmed caviar, discussed its merits, and suggested the difficulties involved in producing the foodstuff, noting that the fish’s eight-year maturation process requires that sturgeon farmers are prepared to make long-term investments. The founders of San Francisco’s Tsar Nicoulai, one of the companies featured in the story, have compared caviar farming to planting a forest to start a paper mill.

Peter Struffenegger, manager of Sterling Caviar in Elverta, Calif., and an employee there since 1986, explains that early attempts at caviar farming were predicated on a great deal of hope. In the early 1980s, little was known about the California white sturgeon, the fish chosen for cultivation, and the only proven sturgeon-farming techniques had been developed three decades earlier by the Russians, who raised the fish until they were two or three inches long and then released them into the wild. “The Russians never kept fish behind, they kept releasing them in the Caspian Sea,” Struffenegger says. “We had to demonstrate that they could be grown in captivity.”

Because farmed white sturgeon do not reach maturity before the age of 8, the caviar-farming pioneers had to wait years before they could identify and correct inevitable mistakes. “At critical times, the fish cannot be disturbed,” says David Stephen, the head of farm operations for Tsar Nicoulai, noting that harvests can be lost if, for instance, the water temperature convinces the sturgeon that it is too warm to spawn. “At 55 to 65 degrees, they will continue to hold eggs in their ovaries, but if the temperature is 70 degrees, they will reabsorb their eggs in hours,” he says. If the fish refuse to spawn, they will wait a year before trying again. Stephen says Tsar Nicoulai checks its tanks around the clock at two-hour intervals.

Complicating matters is the fact that the sturgeon and the consumer are out of sync: The fish prefer to breed in April, but demand for caviar peaks during the winter holidays. Without elaborating on his company’s trade secret, Struffenegger says Sterling has adequate means of preserving its product for the peak season, while Tsar Nicoulai manages its fish so that 40 percent of them yield their eggs in time to serve the holiday demand.

While the farmers are pleased that their product is receiving its due, they are reluctant, understandably, to fiddle with the formula. “We are pretty cautious. When we think about improvements, we make incremental changes,” Struffenegger says. “We don’t tend to be big risk takers, because it comes back to bite you. The fish are going to do what they want to do anyway.”

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