Don't laugh if there comes a time when someone says, "As American as caviar." No, the Russkies haven't invaded Peoria. But caviar, those pricy sturgeon eggs harvested from the Caspian Sea by the states of the former Soviet Union, is being produced right here in the good old U.S.A.
Today, restaurants, retailers and a burgeoning number of caviar bars offer caviar from California-farmed white sturgeon and wild midwestern hackleback sturgeon, as well as roes from paddlefish, salmon and other fish.
"The nutty, creamy flavor of white sturgeon caviar resembles [Caspian] osetra caviar," says Rod Mitchell, president of Browne Trading Company in Portland, Maine, which supplies American caviar to restaurants such as Restaurant Daniel in New York and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. "Some paddlefish caviar is coming out better than some of the sevruga from the Caspian," he says.
Caspian Sea caviar is growing scarcer, and more expensive. Iranian caviar, from the southern part of the Caspian, has been embargoed for years. Elsewhere in the states formed after the fall of the Soviet Union, overfishing and poaching have been rampant. One result, says Hossein Aimani, president of Paramount Caviar in Long Island City, N.Y., is that the amount of beluga caviar coming to market will be one-third of what it was last year.
True caviar is sturgeon roe and, for purists, comes only from Caspian Sea beluga, osetra and sevruga sturgeon. However, that's like saying true Champagne only comes from a specific place in northern France -- while technically correct, it hasn't stopped consumers from enjoying bubbly made in the United States.
Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, Inc., of San Francisco and Stolt Sea Farm California LLC of Sacramento, Calif., both farm white sturgeon in the Sacramento Valley. White sturgeon (Acipenser montanus), native to Pacific waters from Alaska to Mexico and fresh waters of the Pacific Northwest, is a close relative to Caspian osetra (Acipenser gueldenstaedti). Stolt's sales and marketing manager Chuck Edwards noticed this familial similarity when his sturgeon started producing eggs in a range of colors, mimicking the colors of Caspian osetra roe.
"It took us by surprise. We couldn't dye the eggs. So we decided to grade by color. Eventually, we'll do size and firmness grading," Edwards says.
Stolt's jet-black Sterling Onyx, light gray- to cream-colored Czar's Choice, light green to gold Sterling Gold and pewter Sterling Silver each cost $45 an ounce, about the same as osetra. Sterling Classic, with dark gray and olive colors, costs $26.60 an ounce.
Stolt produced 3,000 pounds of caviar this year and hopes to increase that figure to at least 10 tons in the next five years. Tsar Nicoulai's production will be about 500 pounds this year. The charcoal gray Tsar Nicoulai white sturgeon caviar (labeled "farmed osetra," $35 for 2 ounces) I sampled was disappointing, having a mushy, watery appearance and a salty taste. The Sterling Classic, much better, had firmly packed gray eggs and a rich, buttery flavor.
Hackleback sturgeon can be found in the wild within the Mississippi River system. Its pitch-black caviar is less appealing to restaurants, which prefer roe of a grayer color that gives the appearance of Caspian caviar. However, I found the glistening eggs supplied by Paramount Caviar ($19 for 2 ounces) quite attractive. The flavor was clean and mild, with a slight nuttiness. The Tsar Nicoulai hackleback ($15.50 for 2 ounces) also had good-looking eggs and a gentle, sea-breeze flavor.
Because it is often found in swamps and sluggish streams from Canada's St. Lawrence River to Florida, the bowfin is sometimes called the mudfish. The Paramount bowfin roe ($30 for 7 ounces) is from Louisiana, prompting the moniker Cajun Caviar. It has a color similar to the hackleback caviar, but the eggs I sampled were not as separated or well defined. The flavor was musty, almost metallic.
Paddlefish, so called because of their oarlike snouts, aren't sturgeon, but are close enough to be considered a cousin. Their roe looks very much like Caspian sevruga caviar. But at $15 an ounce, paddlefish roe is about half the price of sevruga. Paddlefish are also caught wild in the Mississippi River system, though there is some farming is being done.
Lewis Shuckman, president of Shuckman's Fish Co. & Smokery in Louisville, Ky., has been selling caviar from paddlefish -- which folks in Kentucky call spoonfish -- since 1994. Shuckman attributes the taste of Kentucky spoonfish roe to the pristine streams that feed Kentucky Lake, where the fish are caught.
"Kentucky has more free-running springs than any other state. The constant movement of water gives it natural aeration," Shuckman says. "Overall, the taste is smoother, though less complex than that of osetra caviar." Though a trifle salty, I liked the clean, rich flavor of Shuckman's caviar. The Tsar Nicoulai paddlefish caviar ($15.50 for 2 ounces) was an attractive gray color and had a light, nutty flavor.
Though milder-tasting chum salmon aren't as prized for their meat as the more robust pink salmon are, their roe is considered superior by the Japanese, who buy large amounts for sushi. The oilier, fishier, pink king salmon (and the even richer and more limited king salmon) roe is preferred by Russians, who like to eat it on buttered dark bread.
As Americans have embraced sushi, their fondness for salmon roe has increased, reports Sam Murao, director of caviar production and sales for Wards Cove Packing Co. in Seattle. Murao says this year's chum-salmon catch will be lower than last year's but still large enough to satisfy needs for holiday celebrating.
Salmon roe should be just firm enough to gently pop open when bitten into. Overly mature eggs will be too hard, immature eggs too squishy. Color indicates origin, not quality. Salmon from Washington's Puget Sound or Canadian waters will be more yellow-orange. Alaskan roe will be a deeper orange. Paramount's plump Alaskan salmon roe ($16 for 7 ounces) were delightful orange gel caps of buttery salmon flavor that gently exploded with each bite.
There are many other roes, from the United States and beyond. At Russ & Daughters, one of New York's premier caviar purveyors, owner Mark Federman laid out an array of roes before me that looked like a painter's palette: cranberry red capelin, orange marmalade trout, wasabi green flying fish and golden yellow whitefish. "The Japanese have been playing with this stuff for a long time. It's not intended to be a substitute for real caviar, but it makes for nice canapés," Federman says.
Some of these roes taste as interesting as they look. I particularly liked the firm and pleasantly saline trout roe and the smoky charcoal gray herring roe. The crunchy, mild whitefish roe would make a nice garnish but the black-dyed whitefish roe ran all over the place. Pearl gray anchovy roe was attractive but had a chickenlike flavor, prompting Federman to say, "It doesn't taste real to me." Speaking of real, the dusty rose-colored lobster roe didn't look or taste like anything found in nature. Nor did the bleeding red- and black-dyed Icelandic lumpfish and capelin roes, the awful stuff found in jars on supermarket shelves.
The general rule of serving caviar is: The better the caviar, the less you do to it. Eat good caviar straight -- using nonmetal spoons like mother-of-pearl, bone, even plastic -- with iced vodka or good sparkling wine. The less expensive roes can be put on potatoes, pasta, blini or scrambled eggs. Give the lumpfish and capelin to the cat.
How To Get It
Overnight delivery and gel packs have made mail-order caviar extremely convenient. Unopened fresh caviar will last two to three weeks if kept at or under 38F. Once opened, it should be consumed within two days.
Browne Trading Co., Portland, Maine (800) 944-7848
Paramount Caviar, Long Island City, N.Y. (800) 992-2842
Russ & Daughters, New York (800) 787-7229
Seattle Caviar Co., Seattle (888) 323-3005
Shuckman's Fish Co. & Smokery, Louisville, Ky. (502) 775-6478
Stolt Sea Farm California, Sacramento, Calif. (916) 991-4420
Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, San Francisco (800) 952-2842