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.