By David Bernard
Time was, when you wanted to experience top-quality caviar, there was one game in town (or rather one sea in town): the Caspian Sea. The Soviet Union and Iran, with Caspian shoreline, had sole access to the species of sturgeon that provided the world’s most delicious caviar, which retailed for hundreds of dollars per ounce. However, today, retailers wanting to procure some of the best “Russian” caviar available, may take their shopping trip far and wide – to China and Uruguay, for example.
With exports of wild caviar from the Caspian Sea and other locations banned or mostly banned since 2006 due to poaching, overfishing, pollution and shrinking habitat, American caviar importers have turned to a growing global aquafarm industry. This is yielding some delicious results.
The key to sourcing the best caviar is to keep your eye not so much on the fish, but on the farm. While most aquafarms started their operations with the prized Caspian Sturgeon, Russian Osetra or Siberian Sturgeon (chosen for its rapid rate of maturation), it is the individual farm’s processes and practices that determine whether the fish turn out world-class “Russian” caviar or an also-ran product. While feed is not typically a distinguishing factor in product quality – there are only a few large-scale feed producers worldwide – aspects such as how much and what kind of vitamins are given and the strength of a country’s regulatory practices play important roles in ultimately determining caviar quality.
“My job is to go to visit every single farm to see if they have close to a natural situation,” said Max Moghaddam, President and owner of Bemka House of Caviar & Fine Foods, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based importer and distributor. “The quality of the water is most important. If a farm is landlocked and water is a limited resource – maybe they’re using only 10 percent fresh water and recycling the rest – that’s not really a farm we want to work with.”
In addition to China and Uruguay, countries producing farmed caviar include Italy, the world leader in the production and export of such caviar, Germany, France, Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, Israel, Canada, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, as well as Iran and a number of former Soviet Republics. Russia produces a significant amount of caviar, but most is consumed by the country’s large domestic market.
Today, the main varieties of caviar imported into the United States continue to be Russian Osetra and Siberian Sturgeon. Some hybrids are sold as well, for example Bester, which is a hybrid of the Caspian native Beluga and the smaller Sterlet Sturgeon. Beluga caviar itself is banned from import or sale in this country, because the Beluga Sturgeon is an endangered species.
Marky’s, based in Miami, sources its top-selling Osetra from an Israeli aquafarm that uses a continuous flow of mountain stream water. The Karat Osetra caviar is sold in Black, Amber and Gold varieties. The Amber is a particular hit, juicy but with a firm grain and distinctive nutty clean taste.
While foreign aquafarms are turning out quality caviar, domestic production has grown as well, thanks to both lower pricing and increased demand. With the overall dip in world production that occurred between the banning of much wild caviar and the growth of the farmed caviar industry, domestic producers were able to fill part of the supply void.The caviar from California White Sturgeon, similar to Russian Osetra in size and taste, if a bit more fishy, now makes up more than 70 percent of authentic domestic caviar production and provides consumers with a gourmet product at a somewhat lower price.
“We find that White Sturgeon is a very good middle ground,” said Christopher Hlubb, President and COO of Marky’s. “It does not usually compete with products at the top such as Russian Osetra. Like most products, it depends on grade, but it positions itself as a very good product, although the price has risen and is nearing that of Russian Osetra.”
For retailers looking to offer consumers fish roe at an even lower price, there are a number of non-sturgeon “American caviar” products available (note: this term is also often used to refer to the authentic caviar from California White Sturgeon). Paddlefish roe, the “cousin of caviar,” comes from fish native to the Yellowstone River and Mississippi River system. Salmon and whitefish roe are also lower price-point options.
“We talk to customers and ask them what their need is,” said Dale Sherrow, Vice President of Seattle Caviar Company, which sells American caviar as well as a full range of imported caviar. “If it’s an event, what kind of event, how many people, what’s their budget. And for some customers, salmon roe is the perfect choice. You get that strong salmon flavor. It has a larger bead. It’s just delicious.”
While there are a number of tasty non-sturgeon roe products available, these are not necessarily a steppingstone for consumers to move into imported caviar. “We find a lot of customers have their preference, their budget, and they stay with it,” said Sherrow. “They get great tasting American caviar that can be used most ways.”
This story was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Gourmet News, a publication of Oser Communications Group.
Copper River coho will be featured at two culinary events in September—Alaska Public Media’s Second Annual Sustainable Chef on September 28 in Anchorage and the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America event on September 26 in Seattle. Both events highlight regional foods, chefs and sustainability. The venues will be a unique opportunity to taste and sample this year’s robust and healthy commercial coho harvest.
Coho are the last of the salmon species to arrive in the Copper River Delta each year. Averaging about eight pounds, they are seen as the harbingers of fall. This year has seen a particularly strong and healthy run. Jeremy Botz, the Gillnet Area Management Biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, says the average weight of Copper River coho salmon this year is 8.8 pounds per fish, while last year the average weight was 8.1 pounds per fish. In addition to being larger in size, Botz also reports that overall it looks like this year’s commercial harvest in the Copper River District will be quite a bit larger than last year’s run. The total harvest reported as of September 12 was around 275,000 coho salmon compared to a total seasonal harvest of 229,000 coho last year. Botz also said that reports from the fishing grounds and the processors indicate that there are many large fish in the harvest and that quality has stayed high throughout the fishery.
While Copper River king and sockeye land on dinner plates and fish counters with an exciting splash each spring and summer, it’s worth noting the fresh Copper River coho being served at the two upcoming events will offer guests the opportunity to taste this year’s premium coho. The preparations will be decidedly autumnal in nature. Chef Rob Kinneen, who started Fresh49 will be creating a warm and soothing coho salmon pho with a vegetable tangle at the Sustainable Chef event in Anchorage. In Seattle, restaurateur Tom Douglas will be serving it smoked.
Douglas is a longtime fan of Copper River salmon and said, “We feature Copper River coho every year at our restaurants, and this year is awesome because the fish are bigger and fatter. For the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America event, we will be serving it with a creamy corn chowder. In preparation, we are cold-smoking the Copper River coho over hop blossoms at our farm in the Yakima Valley, and then we will serve it nestled on top of a creamy corn chowder. We are big fans of Copper River, and we celebrate it all year at our restaurants. It’s a great quality salmon and we sell a lot of it.”
Food safety lawyer Ron Simon has filed the first salmonella lawsuit against Costco and Norwegian-based Foppen stemming from a salmonella outbreak linked to contaminated Foppen smoked salmon sold at Costco stores nationwide.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Plaintiff Lorena Vasquez, a 39-year old resident of Mission, Texas.
In September 2012, Vasquez purchased a package of Foppen Norwegian Smoked Salmon Slices from the Costco located in Pharr, Texas.
Shortly after consuming the salmon, she experienced symptoms of diarrhea, abdominal pain, weakness, and related dehydration and was diagnosed with salmonellosis.
As a result of her illness, Vasquez was hospitalized and underwent multiple surgeries.
The Costco / Foppen Salmonella Thompson Outbreak
In the late summer and fall of 2012, the Netherlands experienced its largest food-borne bacterial outbreak in history. The pathogen was Salmonella Thompson, which traditionally appears annually in single or low double-digit numbers in the Netherlands.
By August of 2012, approximately 60 culture-confirmed cases of Salmonella Thompson had been identified; in September, over 120 more were identified; in October, nearly 900 victims had tested positive; and in November and December, approximately 100 more were identified. By December, the count of new cases had slowed to about 20, and by January 2013, the outbreak was deemed over.
As soon as health officials in the Netherlands recognized that they were in the midst of a national outbreak, investigators and epidemiologists from the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) and the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) began to engage in a massive trace-back and epidemiological investigation.
It took investigators six weeks to determine and announce that smoked salmon was the source of the Salmonella Thompson illnesses. The salmon was the product of Foppen Paling & Zalm (“Foppen”) of Harderwijk, the Netherlands. Almost immediately thereafter, Foppen announced that the massive contamination of its salmon by Salmonella Thompson had occurred at its processing plant in Preveza, Greece.
By December of 2012, the RIVM had identified 1200 culture-confirmed victims, including four fatalities.
Costco Sold Foppen’s Contaminated Smoked Salmon in the United States
Significantly, Foppen’s contaminated smoked salmon was also distributed in the United States. According to Foppen company spokesman Bart de Vries, Foppen had only one U.S. customer, Costco, that had purchased large amounts of the fish.
On Monday, October 1, 2012, Costco initiated a recall and removal of the smoked salmon. Craig Wilson, Vice President of Costco, confirmed that the company was also in the process of contacting the 247,000 members who had purchased the contaminated salmon. Vasquez did not receive notice of the recall until after she had become ill.
Harald Wychgel, a spokesman for the Dutch public health institute, reported that as of October 2, 2012, his agency had received information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that at least 100 U.S. residents had been sickened with the identical strain of Salmonella Thompson found in Foppen’s contaminated smoked salmon.
Wychgel’s announcement was consistent with information provided by several states, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), all of which were conducting investigations of a spike in Salmonella Thompson cases in the United States. At least 10 people were hospitalized in the outbreak.
Leading companies from Alaska’s $6 billion seafood industry have announced their support for a ban on Russian seafood imports to the United States and urged Russia to rescind its August 7 ban on U.S. food imports. Such a move would not only further squeeze Russia’s faltering economy as Russia threatens European stability, but would support America’s sustainable, high-quality fisheries. The Alaska seafood industry is seeking support from the Alaska congressional delegation for the ban, as well as from the United States Trade Representative. It also seeks diplomatic efforts to immediately end Russia’s ban on U.S. seafood products.
Russia has been a major market for U.S. seafood products such as salmon roe, hake, Alaskan pollock, and others. The U.S. has been an important market for Russian products including crab, Russian pollock, salmon, caviar, and others.
The proposed U.S. ban would remain in effect until Russia rescinds its ban on U.S. imports, and would include mechanisms to prohibit all seafood imports of Russian origin, including Russian-caught seafood that is transferred through other countries such as China before reaching the U.S. Hundreds of millions of dollars of Russian seafood imports are sold in the U.S. every year, with much of the imported Russian fish coming through China.
“We did not start this fight, and we hope the Russians will call off their embargo. But a U.S. ban will signal to President Putin that America will not sit idly by while Russia disregards international law and tries to coerce the world into ignoring its transgressions through retaliatory actions,” said Terry Shaff, President & CEO of UniSea Inc.
Those endorsing the ban include Alaska General Seafoods, Alyeska Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods, North Pacific Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Peter Pan Seafoods, Trident Seafoods, UniSea, Westward Seafoods, and the members of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.
What began in 1887 in a small fishing village in Spain is now available on a supermarket shelf near you. Not only is Isabel bringing its tuna, sardines, octopus and squid to the U.S. market, the company is also bringing its wildly popular Salad Bowls (shelf stable and ready-to-eat prepared salads) to the U.S.
The Salad Bowls have been a homerun in the European market for years. The healthy, ready-to-eat meals include everything anyone needs for a quick meal on the go in a single bowl. All you have to do is open, mix, and enjoy. The bowls even come with a spoon included! Isabel is introducing three Salad Bowl flavors here in the U.S.:
Isabel was the first to come out with the Salad Bowl product in Spain and is still the largest pre-packaged salad bowl producer in Europe. With the America desire for healthy eat on-the-go options, Isabel’s Salad Bowls are a perfect solution. And this product is already winning American fans.
For the Isabel Tuna purists who have tried one of the Naturtuna products — solid light tuna packed in either extra virgin olive oil or water — you already know the difference that distinguishes Isabel Tuna. It’s actual sliced tuna loin. No vegetable broth. No mixed chunks. Just tuna.
“There’s a noticeable difference even before you taste it,” said Sean Crotty, Isabel North America Vice President and General Manager. “One of the things we like to do is open a can of our tuna and then open a competitor’s. We flip them upside down on a plate. The other comes out as a lump of tuna pieces and ours comes out as one big piece. The tuna looks different. It doesn’t have the smell that’s associated with canned tuna. It’s milder. The taste and texture is very moist and mild.”
Isabel will also bring its line of specialty products including sardines in olive oil, octopus (in garlic sauce or olive oil), squid pieces in ink sauce and mussels in pickle sauce. These products appeal to the growing ethnic consumer base as well as the broadening American palate.
Already in Harris-Teeter stores (primarily along the East Coast) and other independent grocers from New York to Miami, Isabel products are expected to be in stores across the country soon.
“The heritage of our brand is important. We are a 125-year-old company. Although we’re new to the U.S., we’ve been a leader in the world market for many years. We also have significant involvement in the sustainability side of the industry especially working with the World Wildlife Foundation,” said Crotty. “We’re looking forward to continuing that work, as we introduce our products to the American market.”
The New England Aquarium and Greensboro, N.C.-based The Fresh Market are excited to celebrate the first anniversary of their national partnership to promote sustainable fishing practices and responsible aquaculture. Over the past year, The Fresh Market and the New England Aquarium have united in supporting a single goal: sustainable seafood.
At the launch of the partnership, the New England Aquarium assessed the environmental risks in The Fresh Market’s supply chain, and worked with the specialty grocery retailer to create a seafood sourcing policy that included detailed principles for wild caught and farmed seafood. This policy continues to guide the purchase of all of The Fresh Market’s seafood.
Over the past twelve months, this policy has inspired the introduction of several new, sustainable seafood products. For example, The Fresh Market’s scallops are from a certified source, and the company is supporting conservation-focused programs such as the Gulf Wild program, which focuses on environmental improvements and traceability of red snapper. The company has also introduced harmoniously raised Verlasso Salmon, an ocean-raised farmed Atlantic salmon, which has become a customer favorite. In addition, The Fresh Market has replaced other items with more responsibly sourced options at the recommendation of the New England Aquarium.
“We are excited about our ongoing partnership with the New England Aquarium, and we look forward to what the coming year will bring” said Ross Reynolds, vice president of merchandising for meat and seafood at The Fresh Market. “As we continue to build on our sustainable seafood program, our focus over the coming year will be on educating both our employees and our customers on the sourcing of our seafood products.”
“The Fresh Market’s commitment to ocean health has been evident in their actions this past year” said Tania Taranovski, Director of the Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Program. “Their policy and sustainability initiatives can have a real impact, and we look forward to supporting The Fresh Market as they continue to make progress toward their goals.”
To read the company’s full seafood sourcing policy, please visit www.thefreshmarket.com.
Marky’s Group, known for having the widest selection of the most exclusive gourmet products and caviar in the U.S., is gearing up for its biggest booth yet at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York June 29-July 1.
“We’re really excited about what we are doing this year,” says Christopher Hlubb, President and COO of Marky’s. “We will have some 22 vendors offering unique product tastings that range from organic pasta from Tuscany to jams from Portugal and, of course, caviar. In fact, this is the first time different caviar farms from around the world are going to be housed in the same booth. We’ll have a caviar bar with sampling throughout the day for visitors.”
Marky’s Corporate Chef Marc Navailles will be hosting cooking demonstrations and sampling events throughout the show at booth #636. Several of Marky’s exclusive, award-winning imports will be featured on the menus, including:
For additional information visit Marky’s at Booth #636 and be sure to follow Marky’s Gourmet on Facebook to stay up-to-date with the latest news, offers and recipes.
This morning at 7 a.m. commercial fishermen of the Copper River let their nets into the water to officially kick off the 2014 Alaska salmon season. Each year, salmon lovers worldwide anticipate the first harvest of Copper River kings and sockeyes and the first tastes of fresh wild Alaska salmon.
“The small boat harbor in Cordova is absolutely bustling with activity,” said Kim Ryals, the Executive Director for the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association. “There’s no place more exciting on the Alaska coast than Cordova at the start of salmon season. Our tiny town doubles in size in less than a month and all attention turns to the work of bringing in the fish.”
Today’s 12-hour fishing period will send the first of Copper River salmon to celebrations in Seattle and points beyond. Salmon connoisseurs from Anchorage to New York eagerly await the flavorful legendary fish, and restaurants and seafood counters prepare for the first wave of Alaska salmon to hit the market. “Salmon fans across the nation are wild about fish from our region, and for good reason,” added Ryals. “The fish are known for their deep red hue, high Omega-3 content, incredible quality and the fleet of family fishermen who bring in the harvest.”
The Copper River and Prince William Sound region is home to generations of fishing families who are proud to make the local harvest their passion and their way of life. Handling each individual fish with care, these artisan fishermen are dedicated to delivering the highest quality product to America’s seafood markets.
This year, in addition to events at high-end restaurants and seafood markets, the commercial fishing fleet of the Copper River is also providing for its fellow Alaskans. “A ‘First Fish’ lunch at Clare House in Anchorage will take place on Saturday, May 17,” said Jeff Olsen, one of the fishermen departing the Cordova harbor. “Members of the fleet and a few of our wives will assist Chef Gerber of the Crow’s Nest Restaurant in preparing a special meal for residents. Our fishermen are honored and proud to share the first of our bounty with our neighbors.” Clare House provides temporary, emergency 24-hour shelter for women with children and expectant mothers over 18.
After today’s inaugural opener, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game will make announcements about future openings, which typically take place on Monday and Thursday mornings.
By Lorrie Baumann
As Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern are fond of pointing out to their television audiences, you can learn a lot about a society by tasting its food. Case in point: the Orthodox Jewish community in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. If you find yourself in Crown Heights, or even if you are just wondering about kosher food, Benz’s Food Products will be happy to serve up an education in what it means to be both “kosher” and “gourmet.”
Benz’s Gourmet, the brick and mortar shop that is the retail face of the family-owned kosher grocer, opened 11 years ago in Crown Heights, a neighborhood that has since become known as a case study in gentrification. As rising real estate prices have forced middle class families out of Manhattan, they have fled in large numbers to Brooklyn neighborhoods served by an efficient public transportation system that provides easy access to the island. The population shift has generated the concerns and conflicts characteristic of any rapid cultural change.
For Benz’s Gourmet, the changes in the neighborhood have created an opportunity to serve both the neighborhood’s native Orthodox Jewish residents and ex-Manhattanites with gourmet foods that meet the strictest of kosher requirements but also the educated tastes of adventurous eaters. Aside from a few staples that are carried as convenience items, every item in Benz’s Gourmet must pass both tests: it must meet the strictest of kosher standards, and it must be a gourmet product.
“If you’re looking for a gourmet dulce de leche that’s strictly kosher, you come to Benz’s. If you’re looking for a kosher goat yogurt, Benz’s carries it. If you’re looking for truffles, Benz’s carries it. We also offer a large assortment of imported cheeses, imported olives and beers. Of course, all strictly kosher,” said Dobi Raskin, the daughter in the family that owns and operates Benz’s. Dobi does some of pretty much everything that has to be done in the store and the wholesale operation that stands behind it. “Just because you’re kosher and Orthodox doesn’t mean you don’t want a truffle mac and cheese. Just because you keep kosher shouldn’t mean that you don’t get to taste the finer things in life.”
The business was started in 1976 by Dobi Raskin’s father, Benz Raskin. Benz is still active in the business along with Dobi’s mother and her three brothers.
Benz started out making classic frozen gefilte fish logs, distinguished from competing products by the high quality of a product made with only fresh fish and fresh produce when other companies were making it with frozen fish. “We started really small, making small batches,” Dobi says. At first, the product was sold only to local families, with Benz delivering it himself in a little red pickup truck. “We’re in Brooklyn, the home of many Orthodox Jews,” Dobi says. “We ourselves are Orthodox Jews.”
As the Benz’s gefilte fish became more popular, Benz started selling it wholesale to institutional buyers serving the Orthodox community. He then began adding more groceries to his product line. Today, the business sells groceries through the Internet as well as in a brick-and-mortar store, and the company’s patriarch has become a mascot for the neighborhood. The shop is only about 20 feet by 100 feet, so it’s not hard to find him when he is there. “Our hearts are bigger than our store,” Dobi says. “He’s sort of an icon. People come in just to say hello to him. He loves it.”
Benz started the business because he saw that the people in his neighborhood were becoming more interested in some of the gourmet food products that they were hearing about from the Food Network and other influences. They wanted to try the new specialty foods, but they were not interested in abandoning religious requirements for how food is to be raised, processed and served. “That’s where Benz saw the need,” Dobi says. “It requires a lot more research and care to make sure that the products are up to the kosher standards of the community, since there are many different kosher certifications. If there’s a product with a kosher certification you don’t recognize, you have to do due diligence to make sure that it’s something we can carry … Just because something has a symbol doesn’t mean that it’s going to fly with us.”
Benz’s now carries a wide variety of refrigerated and frozen products, dry products and other specialty groceries, all with the endorsement of rabbinic authorities that it has been produced according to strict kosher law. Dobi does a great deal of the research herself to be sure that each product meets the company’s standards. “It’s quite astonishing how much time it takes to establish that a product is kosher, and if so, under which certification,” she says. “That’s what makes us unique, that we take the time.”
When customers ask for an item that’s not in the shop’s stock, Dobi seeks out suppliers who can provide a kosher gourmet product. “If you’re looking for strictly kosher goat yogurt, Benz’s will find it and bring it in. If it’s a popular item, it becomes a regular. We’ll stock it,” she says. “If it’s available on the market, we’ll try to bring it in for you.”
Finding a gourmet item with the proper kosher certification can be a challenge, and Dobi is particularly proud that she was able to find truffle products in response to a customer request. She now gets them from an Israeli company that sources them in Europe, and Benz’s now offers minced truffles, truffle sea salt and even truffle oil. “We were able to bring in the product line. That was a good one,” Dobi says. “You keep the customer happy. They keep you happy. It’s a nice cycle.”
In their eagerness to try new gourmet products, Benz’s customers have not forgotten the traditional foods they grew up with. The company still sells its classic frozen gefilte fish logs and still takes great pride in offering a gourmet product that meets customers’ dietary needs. “The fresh fish and fresh produce that goes into the product put it a step above its competitors, Dobi says. “Just because we eat gefilte fish doesn’t mean it has to taste like cardboard.”
Benz’s also imports trays of herring from Europe and offers them both in the tray and in almost 30 different preparations that combine the herring with ingredients like wasabi, scallions, jalapeños and habanero peppers. Some customers like to buy the herring already prepared, and some like to buy the plain filets and take them home to experiment with new flavor combinations. Either way, Benz’s is ready to serve.
“Our herring filets are probably the best on the market. The quality just can’t be beat. It’s just nice, buttery, good texture,” Dobi says. The herring filets are, like Dobi herself, named after Benz’s mother, so customers come into the shop and ask for Dobis. “I’m pretty famous now, I guess,” she says.
The Dobi case is a popular gathering spot for the community as they come into the store to shop for Sabbath meals, and the various preparations for the herring have become a running topic of discussion among the Orthodox community, where you can often tell which synagogue an individual attended last week by what kind of herring they’re talking about, Dobi says.
“People are expanding their horizons. The market is so vast and there are so many options that people are able to eat a gourmet diet and still adhere to the strict kosher requirements,” says Dobi. “There’s a young community here that’s blossoming that wants the better things in life, and we appreciate that we’re able to offer it to them.”