Photo © Levi Brown
Amid the bad news about caviar—the overfishing of sturgeon and import sanctions—could this symbol of aristocratic elegance actually be entering a second golden age?
Last year, chef Matthew Accarrino found himself literally up to his elbows in caviar. Visiting with Michael Passmore, a fish farmer in the Sacramento Valley, Accarrino was delving into one of Passmore’s five-foot-long California white sturgeon and scooping out its highly valuable eggs.
“The first fish we opened up, I was just stunned,” Accarrino told me recently. “I couldn’t believe how much roe was in there—like 10 or 12 pounds. And then Michael pulls out this Chinese skimmer, the kind you’d use to pull dumplings out of a fryer. He says, ‘So we’re just going to rub this thing through and get the eggs out.’ And I said, ‘Really? This is the tool we’re going to use to harvest thousands of dollars’ worth of caviar?’” Passmore, a relative newcomer to fish farming, now produces caviar to Accarrino’s specifications. “I prefer a larger egg that’s not as firm,” Accarrino says. “That’s what I use. It’s all labeled ACCARRINO in Michael Passmore’s cooler.”
An F&W Best New Chef 2014 at San Francisco’s SPQR, Accarrino began his culinary career back when supplies of caviar were still readily available from wild stocks of Russian and Iranian beluga, osetra and sevruga sturgeon. Farmed caviar, often from Germany, Italy, Israel and China, was the plebeian alternative to the aristocratic original. But by 2006, the wild-caviar market was on the brink of collapse—overfishing and black-marketeering had driven many sturgeon species close to extinction—and because of sustainability concerns, the US banned Russian imports. A few years later, Iranian imports were embargoed as well. Quite suddenly, wild caviar was gone.
“When the USDA banned caviar imports in 2006, Americans started rushing into sturgeon farming,” says Shaoching Bishop, managing director at California’s Sterling Caviar, the country’s largest producer. After just three years, US producers were churning out 15 tons annually. Now, Sterling alone produces that much, and ironically, Russia is one of its biggest clients. “Farms are popping up every month,” Bishop says. “It’s like the vodka business. It used to be there was no premium vodka. Now every week there’s a new brand.”
Around 80 percent of American caviar comes from the Sacramento Valley, where a California-white-sturgeon domestication research program at nearby UC Davis, started in the 1980s by a Soviet scientist named Serge Doroshov, launched the industry. Farms have also emerged in both North Carolina and Florida, growing Russian sturgeon species instead of the California variety. Producers have even popped up in landlocked states, like Idaho.
Michael White, an owner and executive chef at New York City’s Marea, has a metaphor for the domestic caviar surge: “I liken it to Cuban cigars,” he says. “With Cubans, it was ‘I gotta have a Cohiba!’ Fast-forward, and now there are so many different tobaccos from the Dominican Republic that are as good as or better than Cuban.”
The success of domestic caviar farmers is certainly a credit to entrepreneurship, but the industry is growing because chefs and connoisseurs agree that the best farmed caviar tastes really, really good. Famed Paris-based caviar brand Petrossian (responsible for 30 percent of US caviar sales) sources all of its white sturgeon caviar from farms in California. Florida caviar has appeared on the menus of star chefs Dan Barber and Daniel Boulud. Earlier this year, when French President François Hollande was fêted at the White House, he was served a dollop of Illinois osetra.
Eight years ago, Petrossian sold wild beluga for more than $300 per ounce; now its farmed caviar goes for half as much. This price drop has encouraged chefs to experiment with different varieties and find the exact flavors and textures they like, working with farmers who all harvest, salt and age their eggs their own way. Chef Chris Gawronski, who serves caviar on home-crafted abalone-shell spoons at his Chicago restaurant Henri, was initially dissatisfied with West Coast farms: “The stuff out of California was just awful—overcured, oversalted.” But in Leo Ray’s Fish Breeders of Idaho, he found a match: “When I opened Leo’s tin, it was gorgeous. It was on par with some of the most expensive osetras.”
“A lot of farmed caviar tastes like the bottom of a pond,” Joshua Skenes, the chef at San Francisco restaurant Saison, told me. But he was so impressed with Sterling’s Imperial grade that he put the caviar on his menu. “It’s briny and has depth of flavor to it,” he says.
Inspired by my discussions with chefs and producers, I decided to organize a caviar tasting of my own at Manhattan’s Cull & Pistol. My tasting panel: a Russian émigré named Yulia Dultsina; a scientist, John Waldman, who studies sturgeon in the Hudson River; and me. We started with caviar from Michael Passmore, packaged in a brown paper–wrapped jar and labeled FISH 22. The caviar was briny, a little smoky and downright oceanic. “The most interesting of the six!” Waldman declared authoritatively. Two offerings from Sterling—Royal and Imperial—scored solidly in the middle; reviewing the tasting cards afterward, I found the phrase “like a sea breeze” more than once in relation to the Imperial. Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory’s Siberian osetra even reminded Yulia of the real wild kind, which she and her sister were force-fed in their childhood—Russian brain food, apparently (her sister had surreptitiously tossed her beluga canapés behind their old Soviet fridge).
It’s difficult to find the exact vocabulary to describe how caviar tastes. Chefs use tired adjectives like “nutty” and “buttery”; I prefer the language I picked up from the Belarusian maître d’ of the restaurant Mari Vanna in New York City. He told me, “When Russians have caviar they like, they say, ‘It feels good in the mouth and doesn’t taste fishy.’ ”
Russians might be shocked at the liberties American chefs are taking with this regal food—Accarrino, for one, excels at the once-heretical practice of combining caviar with other ingredients. One of his favorite ways to serve it is over onion panna cotta, next to his house-cured sturgeon bacon. In fact, Accarrino has found ways of using all parts of Passmore’s sturgeon in his dishes, fashioning rillettes from the heads and “sweetbread” from the ovaries. Accarrino also serves a “buttery, herbaceous brioche” with fennel powder that he tops with caviar and garnishes with lemon confiture. These are experiments he wouldn’t have dared consider back when wild caviar was available. “You’d never take caviar that’s $300 an ounce and use it in a dish,” he laughs. “It would be too precious.”