Capitalizing on caviar

Locally produced luxury hasn’t yet made a splash in Sacramento

A local sturgeon rustler showed just how big and muscular these caviar-producing fish can get.

A local sturgeon rustler showed just how big and muscular these caviar-producing fish can get.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

In the United States of the 1880s, sturgeon were considered a “trash fish.”

They survived dinosaurs and the meteor that killed them. They’ve been poached, peddled and pined after. In Russia, there’s a mafia that deals in them. Famous chefs like Bobby Flay have donned wet suits and jumped in tanks with them.

They’re sturgeon, a fish believed to have swum from rivers to the sea and back again 200 million years ago.

The white sturgeon, which calls the Sacramento River home, is a dark gray fish with a tattoo of spots down its sides, a bright white belly and dark red, feathery gills like lace peeking out of a Victorian sleeve.

Sturgeon can live for 100 years and grow to be a thousand pounds, but most don’t for one reason: caviar.

The white sturgeon produces caviar comparable in quality to Beluga, Sevruga and Osetra caviar from the Caspian Sea, served in dewy piles in Russia, along with blini and ice-cold vodka. Traditionally, the Caspian Sea produced 99 percent of the world’s caviar, but pollution, political upheaval and poaching decimated the sturgeon’s numbers there, giving Sacramento more than a toehold in the world market.

“Sacramento County is actually the caviar capital of the world,” said Dr. David Stephen, who manages one of Tsar Nicoulai’s sturgeon farms outside of Sacramento.

For those who live in California, it means no more “mooshy, fishy, salty” caviar making the long trek from Russia, bathed in a Borax preservative, said Deborah Keane, vice president of sales and marketing for Tsar Nicoulai.

But is Sacramento ready for such luxury? Only a few restaurants regularly serve caviar, and only specialty food stores like David Berkley on Pavilions Lane and Corti Brothers on Folsom Boulevard carry it.

“In maybe five or 10 years from now, [Sacramento] could be more of a player, but it’s just not there right now,” said Peter Struffenegger, general production manager for Sterling Caviar, another local producer.

Sterling is distributed by a New York company to the best restaurants in Paris, New York, Australia and, more locally, to the French Laundry in Yountville, where it is notoriously difficult to get a reservation.

There is one restaurant that interests Struffenegger in Sacramento, and that’s the Kitchen, with a prix fixe menu and limited availability.

“The Kitchen, I think they fit the profile,” he said.

Most people only think about caviar around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Struffenegger said, making it difficult to market the rest of the year. When Sterling invited 60 food writers to the processing plant, only two showed up. The rest demurred, saying they’d have to sit on their stories until December.

“A lot of champagne companies have the same problem,” Struffenegger said.

Like champagne, Sterling is trying to get people to think of caviar as more of a year-round splurge.

Tsar Nicoulai, which has two sturgeon farms in California and three more in Idaho, raised its profile by opening a San Francisco cafe with samples of its caviar. Demand, Keane said, has skyrocketed. Sacramento, however, is not being considered for a sister cafe right now.

“We have more people wanting this product than we have caviar,” Keane said. At about $50 per ounce, it’s more affordable than it’s been in the past.

“Because of the farmed product, the price point is a lot more tangible,” Keane said.

And it all starts with a fish farm in Sacramento.

It takes three years just to differentiate the sex of a sturgeon, and eight to 10 years for a female to produce eggs. A caviar-ready fish is placed in fresh-water tanks to clarify the eggs and meat, said Dr. Stephen on a recent sunny day at the farm.

The farm, near Wilton, is unmarked and unremarkable but for the odd wetsuit hanging here and there and its dozens of tanks, each swimming with sturgeon in different stages of development.

Stephen scooped the smallest fish, less than a year old, into a net, took one in his hand and showed off its sharky features and compact strength.

“They probably escaped a few dinosaurs,” Stephen said, looking fondly at the hand-sized fish.

Mature fish grow to between 80 and 100 pounds, but the farm keeps around some of “the big mamas,” which become more like pets.

Most sturgeon, however, are there for their caviar.

The fish are knocked on the head, put in an ice slurry and taken to the processing plant nearby.

There, they are washed and sterilized. Their egg sacs are removed and cleaned of excess flesh. Eggs are removed by hand, lightly salted, aged about a month and packed.

“We harvested in 2006 over 10,000 pounds of caviar, and we will do close to double that in 2007,” Keane said.

Tsar Nicoulai and Sterling also are developing a market for sturgeon meat, a rich fish that’s good for barbecuing and smoking, Keane said.

“It’s a caviar fish, so it has a lot more fat and oils, so it’ll be more tender,” she said. “If the eggs are perfect, you know the meat is perfect.”