Farmed Caviar Is Reaching New Heights
Once upon a time the sturgeon reigned supreme among all the freshwater fish. Queen Beluga wore the crown and was lauded for the wisdom of age, her great size, and her most delicious roe. One day, however, the numbers of her royal family became so few that her realm collapsed, and sadness spread across the land. Chefs and fishermen and venture capitalists wept tears as salty as the caviar they so missed. But then a group of wizards cast a powerful spell, creating a new world in which the fish could thrive, so the sturgeon’s tale just might have a storybook ending after all.
While a spell might have sped up the shift if this were indeed a Russian fairy tale (such stories are well stocked with sturgeons), this new world has come about instead because of significant changes in the caviar industry. The sturgeon, from which all true caviar is harvested, is a rather remarkable animal, having survived relatively unchanged for roughly 200 million years. The beluga sturgeon is the largest freshwater fish in the world and can live as long as a century. While the sturgeon’s precious roe has long been prized, in the last decade the ways in which humans obtain it have changed drastically.
Caviar used to be relatively simple: The best was Russian or Iranian, wild, and from the beluga, sevruga, or osetra species of sturgeon. About 10 years ago, because of overfishing that critically endangered wild sturgeons, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species put a series of bans and trade embargoes in place, making caviar from wild sturgeon illegal to import to the States.
For some nostalgic connoisseurs, caviar will simply never be what it once was. The upside of that change is that in order to meet demand, quality farmed caviar has risen to meet a bar of excellence and consistency that, in some opinions, actually exceeds the wild-sourced days of yore. Where farming caviar was once looked down upon, it is now the method of production for some of the best caviars in the world, and certainly the best available in the United States.
State-of-the-art caviar farms have emerged in the States, Europe, Israel, and China. The improvements are chiefly the result of university research. “The sturgeon has been studied intensely in the last 10 years,” says Rod Browne Mitchell, the owner of Browne Trading Company, a top caviar supplier in Portland, Maine—“its bio-characteristics, habits, and diet. Every farm has its own special diet they feed the fish, and that makes a difference.” Other nuances, he says, can be traced to the ripeness of the roe when it is harvested, which is usually a decision made by sight by the farmer after extracting a sample of the roe, and the age of the fish at harvest (the older the better). To hasten maturation, some farmers use injections of natural hormones from male sturgeons, which are not banned in the United States, but Mitchell believes better eggs come to those who wait for the sturgeon to mature naturally. The brine mixture and length of curing of the savory beads determine the final notes of flavor.