Which came first — the sturgeon or the egg? Probably the sturgeon. The legendary fish dates back to prehistoric times, but the precious roe harvested from this “living fossil” is a decidedly contemporary delicacy.
Although the roe of any fish can be given the same treatment and preparation, true caviar is the salt-cured roe (eggs) of the sturgeon.
“Historically speaking, genuine caviar only came from the Caspian Sea,” says Ali Bolourchi, president of Tsar Nicoulai Caviar. “In my opinion, caviar that comes from farm-raised sturgeon that’s been salted and cured can classify as the real article if it’s less than 4 percent salt.”
Founded in 1984, California-based Tsar Nicoulai Caviar specializes in raising white sturgeon on a 40-acre sustainable aquaculture farm in Sacramento County and showcases its wares at a tasting café in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
“The U.S. is fortunate to have some species of indigenous sturgeon,” Bolourchi mentions. “California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho; there are some lake sturgeon near Wisconsin and Michigan, and sometimes in the gulf regions. Those are the best areas for caviar production because that’s where the fish naturally thrive.”
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Farmed sturgeon typically take 6 to 12 years to reach maturity before their eggs can be harvested. Although the sturgeon do perish in the roe collection process, Tsar Nicoulai Caviar currently works with Whole Foods and the University of California, Davis to practice the most humane harvesting procedures. After the roe is removed, the fish is then processed into smoked sturgeon and sturgeon pate so as not to waste any of the product.
Conducted several times a year, the labor-intensive harvesting process puts the roe sacks through a metal screen to separate the eggs before rinsing them in cold water and then drying, salting, packaging in tins and pressing to remove any air pockets. At Tsar Nicoulai, the caviar is cold-aged for about 90 days to allow the salt to penetrate deeply into the roe.
“That’s really what brings out the full flavor,” Bolourchi says. “Curing and aging is where the magic happens.”
Grading the caviar is what determines its market price.
“We have six grades of white sturgeon that we farm, each produced in varying quantities and qualities,” Bolourchi explains. “The cost has to do with the age of the fish and the scarcity of that resource. The minimum cost point for a responsibly produced American caviar is around $30 per ounce. Our base product starts at $40 an ounce and goes up to $400 an ounce.”
For those who’ve never sampled caviar, Bolourchi describes the flavor as an umami-rich lightly salted sea butter, surprisingly mild when compared to some other kinds of seafood. He recommends first tasting the caviar by itself to appreciate its true flavor and nuances. From there, the sky's the limit.
“Caviar is gluten-free; we like to serve it at the cafe on unsalted kettle chips with crème fraiche, or on a deviled egg,” he says. “My perfect bite is a crispy cracker with crème fraiche, cold-smoked salmon and a dollop of caviar with a good California sparkling wine. Don’t overthink it — there’s no wrong way to enjoy caviar!”
For optimal freshness, store caviar in the coldest section of your refrigerator and plan to eat it quickly. To serve, nestle the open tin into a bed of crushed ice and use mother-of-pearl, wood or even plastic spoons — small abrasions in stainless steel can lend a metallic taste to the caviar.
“Caviar is domestically produced, it’s delicious, and you can feel good knowing you’re supporting an American-made product and American sturgeon farmers,” Bolourchi says. “It’s really a gift from nature that we’ve stumbled into by accident.”