WHITE & BELUGA
American caviar (Newsday Photo/Tony Jerpme)
Ganeshram is a freelance writer.
holiday revelers seeking a bit of luxury, the prized catches
this season are Iranian osetra and a relative newcomer to the
caviar market - transmontanous.
Though exotic-sounding, the newcomer has humble roots for a
caviar. It is domestic, harvested from American white sturgeon,
or transmontanous sturgeon, that are farmed in freshwater tanks
in California and elsewhere in the United States. It's close
to Russian and Iranian osetra in flavor and appearance.
After eight years on the market, American sturgeon caviar is
getting its due, becoming an acceptable - and to environmentally
concerned connoisseurs, a preferable - alternative to threatened
Caspian Sea caviars, particularly beluga. It's also half the
price of the best beluga, in some cases.
"This year we chose not to sell beluga caviar because it is
most endangered," said Mark Russ Federman, owner of Russ &
Daughters in lower Manhattan. But he did start selling American
sturgeon caviar for the first time, because it has become "very
good, the best year I've seen."
At Petrossian, a leading purveyor of all caviars in Manhattan
and Paris, executive director Eve Vega said their sales this
year of the transmontanous are already going off the charts.
Stolt Sea Farm in Sacramento County, just one of the handful
of U.S. caviar producers and the supplier of Petrossian's transmontanous,
will harvest nearly 9,000 pounds of caviar, almost three times
the amount harvested in 1999. Stolt's sales have doubled yearly
Tsar Nicoulai of San Francisco, the first company to farm white
sturgeon some 20 years ago, now owns 8 million pounds of fish
and expects to produce 25,000 pounds of caviar a year in five
The term caviar refers to the salted roe, or eggs, of fish in
the sturgeon family, and until recently connoisseurs insisted
that it specifically referred only to eggs from Caspian Sea
sturgeon that produced the sevruga, osetra and beluga varieties.
Of the 27 species of sturgeon, seven are native to the United
States. The rest live in the Caspian Sea and bodies of water
in Central Asia.
The American caviar industry has experienced a boom in response
to limited or poor product coming out of the Caspian Sea, where
the bulk of caviar is harvested by Russia and Iran and where
overfishing in the 1990s placed sturgeon fisheries in peril.
The industry has also benefited from the support of Sea Web's
Caviar Emptor, a nonprofit ocean preservation group that has
lobbied the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place beluga sturgeon,
the most imperiled sturgeon fishery, on an endangered species
list. A decision is expected next month and, if adopted, the
measures would prevent importation of beluga caviar into the
United States, buyer of 60 percent of the world's beluga caviar
Some retailers have voluntarily stopped selling beluga and osetra.
Four years ago, natural and organic food retailer Whole Foods
Markets, which has stores in Manhasset and Manhattan, made the
switch to exclusively sell farmed domestic caviar to take pressure
off the Caspian Sea caviar industry.
On top of the environmental concerns, sources say the American
stuff has improved. Previously farm-raised American caviar wasn't
always up to par, said Hossein Aimani, president of Paramount,
a caviar importer in Long Island City, because American producers
didn't have centuries of knowledge about how to process caviar.
Once an egg sac is removed from a still- living or freshly killed
sturgeon it is strained three times to produce clean eggs. The
eggs are then salted at a measure of 50 grams of salt per 1,000
grams of eggs to create "malossol" or "lightly salted" caviar.
"American producers would over salt or under salt or harvest
improperly and the product was inferior. That has all changed
and now there are some wonderful American caviar and roe products
out there," Aimani said.
Additionally, the industry had to overcome bad initial press
in the 1990s surrounding domestic fish roes from paddlefish
and hackleback marketed to the public as "caviar." These were,
in fact, entirely different products with a taste often characterized
"When we started producing caviar from white sturgeon, which
has characteristics most similar to both osetra and beluga in
terms of quality, appearance and taste, we had a great-tasting,
high-end product fighting an initial bad impression," said Chuck
Edwards, sales and marketing manger for Stolt. "While we are
enjoying an increasing following among chefs, there are still
those that don't want to have anything to do with it."
The strong support of many chefs is, in fact, rapidly bolstering
the new American caviar market.
"I have always served Caspian caviars my whole career, which
I would select by blind tasting," said chef Rick Moonen of the
Manhattan seafood eatery rm. "About two years ago I found that
the beluga caviars were inferior-tasting and not worth the price.
On the other hand I tasted some American caviars and was impressed.
I made the decision to switch permanently when I learned about
[beluga sturgeon's] endangered situation."
"You try to have an environmental thought process when you are
buying food, but then it is difficult because you need to give
customers a good product and the luxury they expect," said Marcus
Samuelsson, executive chef at Aquavit in Manhattan, who uses
American caviar. It is a hard balance the chef must make, Samuelsson
said, and one he often has been able to reach with American
But can domestic American caviar ever be as good as those crown
jewels of the Caspian Sea?
"It is different but not as different as you think it is. I
have had bad caviar from Russia, too, and without any question,
American caviar has made great strides," said chef Jaques Pepin,
who supports halting international trade in beluga until the
fishery is restored and environmental impact of pollution is
"Caviars like Sterling or Tsar Nicoulai [brands] are certainly
excellent, and salmon or rainbow trout roe can be very good
at certain times of the year as well," Pepin said.
Pepin said that American roes or caviars are a good way for
non-connoisseurs to "ease" in and develop a palate for the better
stuff. While Caspian Sea caviars are priced in the $150 to $165
range for about 2 ounces of Beluga, $120 for the same amount
of osetra, and $100 for sevruga, high-quality American white
sturgeon caviar sells in the range of $65 to $85 for 2 ounces.
Paddlefish, hackleback, white fish and salmon roes can be had
for less than half that amount.
Still, while chefs such as Moonen serve domestic caviar a la
carte, others, including Doug Gulija, chef-owner of Plaza Café
in Southampton, use it as a garnish or secondary ingredient
because they still don't think it is up to the quality of good
Russian or Iranian varieties. Gulija doesn't serve Caspian Sea
varieties any longer because of environmental concerns.
At Nick & Toni's in East Hampton, chef de cuisine Seth Caswell,
agrees and sticks with American paddlefish roe, an inexpensive
product that works well as a component of a dish.
"I wouldn't serve paddlefish roe to my clients and pass it off
as caviar because it's not the luxury product they expect -
although it is a good product," he said.
Eve Vega teaches monthly caviar education seminars at the Petrossian
Cafe and Boutique in Manhattan, complete with chef demonstrations,
as well as a caviar seminar at the New School. She said that
American white sturgeon caviar has become a product worthy of
the Petrossian brand.
"We would absolutely not be selling it if we did not think it
was a superior product," she said of American white sturgeon
caviar. "Over the years we have worked with Stolt to create
the same processing techniques that are used in the Caspian
Sea so we can get the best possible product."
Yet, she said, consumers should be aware that Caspian Sea caviar
and farmed American caviar are two different things.
"Transmontanous is a great product in and of itself and shouldn't
be compared with Caspian Sea osetra because it is not the same
thing," she said. "Plus, we have to face the fact that caviar
from the Caspian has that unique taste of those waters and that
environment and that is the standard. As good as an American
caviar might be, it can't mimic that."
Vega also noted that some producers mislabel transmontanous
caviar as "American Osetra" when osetra sturgeon only exist
in the Caspian Sea.
However that may soon change.
a Florida-based importer, began bringing in 5-year-old live
beluga, osetra, and sevruga from the Caspian Sea last June for
farming, giving rise to the possibility of real beluga, osetra
and sevruga being produced in the United States. Another shipment
of five 10-year-old, 60-pound, 6-foot beluga sturgeon arrived
this month, and hopes are that the fish ultimately will produce
the "real" McCoy osetra, sevruga and beluga caviars.
They are products that will be a long time in coming. Sturgeon,
which can weigh in the thousands of pounds, must be 14 to 20
years old, depending on species, before their eggs can be harvested.
In the meantime, there always is American caviar.
"It has been taking a while for people to believe in the product,"
Vega said, "but as people come onboard you are going to see
a good healthy industry that will eliminate the unnatural strain
on the Caspian Sea caviar."
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