I lived through the garbage, I might as well dine on the caviar. ~ Beverly Sills
Every once in a while we come across a story that really captures our imagination. We’ll never forget when we learned that a farmer in the mountains of Tennessee was growing truffles; not just any truffles, but the prized Black Perigord truffles. These intoxicating gems sell upwards of $800 per pound. Tom Michaels won the President’s American Treasures Award for his contribution to our food culture through his groundbreaking efforts cultivating this black gold. Today, many farmers in the Southeast are planting oak and hazelnut trees inoculated with truffle spores in hopes of taking part in the latest gold rush.
Tennessee Truffles was certainly a surprise, but you can imagine our reaction when we learned of Carolina Caviar. This swimmingly good idea may just be the next gold rush.
There are several companies raising paddlefish for “caviar” in Oklahoma and Kentucky. Somewhat similar to sturgeon caviar, paddlefish roe sells for a fraction of the price and most of the production is sold internationally. However, unlike Tennessee truffles that compare favorably to the most prized French or Italian truffles, Kentucky caviar (technically, caviar is only from sturgeon) from paddlefish is not the same in taste, size, or texture as Russian and Siberian caviar from sturgeon, though at the price it has its followers.
On a recent trip to the mountains of North Carolina, we were led by Executive Chef Nate Curtis of Westglow Resort and Spa to a most unusual business that is sure to influence the culinary world. Hidden in the hills of Happy Valley (yes, that’s really the name of the town) are three nondescript metal farm buildings that shroud it’s real purpose.
For the past seven years, a small group of investors has built a sturgeon farm with the intent of producing some of the finest caviar available in the world. They began their enterprise in 2006 after Joe Doll, a cargo pilot, became aware of the decline in availability of wild Caspian Sea sturgeon. He enlisted the support of three other partners to build the Atlantic Caviar and Sturgeon Company. Over the years, the partnership has changed with the death of one partner (Bill White) and the addition of two experts in biology and agricultural engineering.
This sustainable aquaculture farm houses four nursery tanks, thirty-two grow tanks, and twelve staging tanks. Each grow tank is 20,000 gallons. They are raising Russian, Siberian, and recently added Atlantic sturgeon. It takes seven to eight years to raise the fingerlings to mature size for harvesting the roe. This is the first full year (2013) of production.
A prehistoric survivor of the ice age, sturgeon is the largest freshwater fish in the world, some exceeding 2,000 pounds and resembling an aquatic dinosaur. Ancient Romans thought sturgeon an aphrodisiac with life-extending properties. Henry I of England declared it the “Royal Fish.” Today, because of over fishing, loss of habitat and man-made dams, sturgeon in the wild are endangered and protected.
Atlantic Caviar and Sturgeon Company is the only producer in North America of the highly prized Ossetra caviar from Russian sturgeon, second only to the most sought after Beluga caviar. Their Siberian caviar was recognized by two of the most prestigious international purveyors of caviar as one of the top three caviar in the world for taste and color. Similar aquaculture businesses are being developed in Uruguay, China, Iraq, and Israel. What makes Atlantic Caviar’s superior is the well water and filtration system used in each tank. Every seventy-five minutes the water in the tank is fully filtered.
Fresh caviar should be bright, shiny, and whole. It should not appear smashed or dull. Like good quality fish, it shouldn’t smell fishy at all. It should smell of a sea breeze. There should be a uniform bead size: most are a yellow to golden brown color and should pop when eaten.
True aficionados believe caviar should be served simply. The caviar should be scooped with a Mother of Pearl spoon to avoid transfer of taste to the roe and often spread on the side of the hand to be eaten. A more formal serving is with blini (of Russian origin, it is a thin flat pancake prepared from batter and cooked on a hot frying pan) or toast points and lemon wedges.
The Atlantic Caviar and Sturgeon Company currently manage 16,000 sturgeons. They enter the facility in the nursery as eggs purchased from Germany and exit through the kitchen as thirty-five to fifty pound fish that are filets and the highly prized caviar. The fish is similar to swordfish in its firm texture and mild taste. The company also produces a smoked sturgeon.
It takes four years before the sex of the fish can be identified through sonograms. At that time the males and females are separated. The females are nurtured to maturity while the males meet the fate of the knife. Their meat is sold as filets. The Siberian sturgeon are best for smoking as they are fattier and larger in frame.
When it is time to harvest the roe, the fish are moved to the staging tanks. The length of day and amount of light puts the females into spawning mode. The company controls the time of spawning by regulating the light in the facilities. Each fish is removed from the holding tank, sonogramed, and the egg sac is biopsied to determine if the eggs are ready. A needle is inserted into the uterus to extract an egg sample. When the eggs are firm, and could potentially live without the female, the fish is harvested.
Like truffles, it takes time to produce this highly sought after specialty product and that involves high investment and risk. Luxury comes at a price. Caviar is sold by the gram with current prices ranging from $2 to $5 per gram, depending on the type and grade. Each fish will produce from one to three kilograms of roe. Do the math and you can see that these are very valuable fish, typically worth $5,000 to $10,000 each.
The caviar is cleaned, salted, weighed, packaged and sold in air tight banded tins of various sizes.
The next time you have champagne wishes and caviar dreams, be sure to reach out to this local sturgeon farmer and enjoy some of the finest caviar in the world. Don’t forget to chase it with a dry Champagne. Champagne is the only wine that will preserve the delicate taste of caviar when served off the hand or on a blini or wafer. When serving with oysters or accompaniments like cucumber and onion, a very dry white wine, like a white Burgundy, is an excellent choice.
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