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.
While the roe of any fish can receive the same treatment and preparation, true caviar is the salted roe (eggs) of the sturgeon.
“Historically, real caviar only came from the Caspian Sea,” said Ali Bolourchi, president of Tsar Nicoulai Caviar. “In my opinion, caviar that comes from farmed sturgeon that has been salted and cured can be classified as the genuine article if it contains less than 4 percent salt.”
Founded in 1984, Tsar Nicoulai Caviar specializes in breeding white sturgeon on a 40-acre sustainable aquaculture farm in Sacramento County and showcases his wares at a tasting cafe in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
“The US is lucky to have some native sturgeon species,” Bolourchi says. “California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho; there are some sea sturgeons 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.”
Farmed sturgeons usually take 6 to 12 years to reach maturity before their eggs can be harvested. Although the sturgeon dies when harvesting roe, Tsar Nicoulai Caviar is currently working with Whole Foods and the University of California, Davis to perform the most humane harvesting procedures. After the roe is removed, the fish is processed into smoked sturgeon and sturgeon pie so as not to waste any product.
The labor-intensive harvesting process is performed several times a year, placing the roe bags through a metal sieve to separate the eggs before rinsing them in cold water and then drying, salting, canning and pressing to remove any air bubbles. At Tsar Nicoulai, the caviar is cold aged for about 90 days to allow the salt to penetrate deep into the roe.
“That’s really what brings out the full flavor,” says Bolourchi. “Curing and aging is where the magic happens.”
Sorting the caviar determines the market price.
“We have six varieties of white sturgeon that we grow, each produced in different quantities and qualities,” explains Bolourchi. “The costs are related to the age of the fish and the scarcity of that resource. The minimum price for responsibly sourced American caviar is around $30 an ounce. Our base product starts at $40 an ounce and goes up to $400 an ounce.”
For those who have never tasted caviar, Bolourchi describes the taste as an umami-rich lightly salted sea butter, surprisingly mild compared to some other types of seafood. He recommends tasting the caviar yourself first to appreciate its true flavor and nuances. From there, the sky is the limit.
“Caviar is gluten-free; we like to serve it in 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 fraichche, cold smoked salmon and a dollop of caviar with a good California sparkling wine. Don’t think too much about it – there’s no wrong way to enjoy caviar!”
For optimal freshness, store caviar in the coldest part of your refrigerator and plan to eat it quickly. Before serving, place the opened can in a bed of crushed ice and use spoons made of mother-of-pearl, wood or even plastic – minor scrapes in stainless steel can give the caviar a metallic taste.
“Caviar is produced domestically, 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 of nature that we accidentally bumped into.”