Sustainable practices help caviar make a comeback

WILTON, Calif.

It's been called the "food of kings" -- caviar is a delicacy not just for its rarity, but its creamy buttery texture and taste. Today, caviar is on the menus of some of the Bay Area's top restaurants.

"Every once in a while we all want a little bit of indulgence," California Caviar Company spokesperson Deborah Keane said.

The California Caviar Company is one of a growing number of caviar purveyors who are trying to provide an environmentally friendly source of fish eggs.

Only eggs from sturgeon can be called caviar.

"There are approximately 24 species of sturgeon, all of which are on the endangered or threatened species list," Keane said.

Sturgeon was nearly wiped out by caviar demand at the turn of the last century. Illegal poaching created a huge black market for the delicacy.

"Now all of the imported wild caviar is banned in the United States," Keane said.

Keane was part of a movement that started about a decade ago to bring back domestic caviar. Instead of wild sturgeon she turned to farm-raised fish.

"When I started in the industry there were six farms around the world producing caviar, only a couple of them processing caviar, today now there's about 20," Keane said.

Most of the U.S. production happens in California's Central Valley. The region produces an estimated 85 percent of all the white sturgeon caviar in the country.

"White sturgeon is native to the California coast," farm manager Steve Wheeler said.

One such farm is south of Sacramento and owned by San Francisco-based Tsar Nicoulai Caviar. It is one the pioneers in sustainable caviar.

"We have about 4,000 fish in our inventory right now," assistant farm manager Darrell Jew said.

The fish are raised in huge tanks and carefully monitored by biologists. Water quality is constantly monitored for purity and quality.

"We raise them until they are 6-8 years old," Wheeler said.

In the wild the fish can weigh up to 400 pounds. The farmed fish weigh about 85 pounds, but are still difficult to wrangle. Each fish is closely monitored and when the time is right, it's checked for ripeness.

"We will do a surgical biopsy to examine the eggs for quality size, texture, flavor and color," Wheeler said.

"The older they get the bigger they get, and the more eggs they produce," Jew said.

The eggs are then sent to San Francisco for processing and the meat is sold separately. The eggs are carefully sorted, and inspected for quality before being packaged and stored.

As soon as an order comes in, the fresh caviar will be packed and sent to customers.

"You're getting a raw product with salt and the taste, the texture, the color all of that is what the fish gave us," Tsar Nicoulai Caviar spokesperson Tom Trauger said.

It's that level of purity that has people clamoring for this treat once again. Caviar retailers say the industry is still in its infancy, but growing quickly.

"We believe caviar should be an everyday indulgence," Keane said.

Tsar Nicoulai Caviar starts at $41 an ounce, and goes up to $720 an ounce. The California Caviar Company caviar starts at $35 an ounce and goes to up $80.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

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