California caviar is a booming business
From the outside, the cluster of sheet-metal buildings smack in the middle of the soggy Sacramento delta do not look like much. But on the inside, they are producing a new kind of California gold.
Here, swarming by the thousands in dozens of huge tanks, swim Acipenser Transmontanus—the native white sturgeon of California.
They were the reason we had travelled to tiny Elverta, California.
Because sturgeon eggs (or roe, as they are called in the business) make caviar, the expensive, fishy delicacy consumed by Russian tsars, Hollywood stars… and, here in a small, brightly lit and well-scrubbed room, by Lucy Bellman, the quality control queen of the Sterling Caviar company.
"A lot of people don’t get to say they eat caviar for a living, but I do," Bellman says.
California caviar is a booming business, with the state's sturgeon farmers profiting from the downfall of Caspian Sea caviar. For decades, Russia and Iran produced 95 percent of the world's caviar. That all changed when the Soviet Union collapsed, says fish farm manager Peter Struffenegger.
"There was rampant poaching, money didn't flow back into the hatcheries, the quality went down and they overfished the Caspian Sea to the point where it's probably commercially functionally extinct," he told me.
The sturgeon start as small fry, swimming endless circles around their tanks. It takes eight to 12 years for them to mature to the point where the caviar can be extracted.
They're somewhat mysterious, and undeniably ancient creatures.
Sturgeon have been swimming around for about 250 million years, long before the dinosaurs or, needless to say, human gourmets came on the scene.
I asked Struffenegger how long, exactly, does a sturgeon live?
"Oh, nobody knows how long they'll live," he replied. "There's no question they live 80 to 100 years, but there are some scientists who think four or five hundred years or beyond."
A sturgeon Methuselah hooked in California more than a century ago weighed 800 kilos. That is about as much as a Volkswagen Beetle.
Despite their longevity, farmed sturgeon are surprisingly pernickety about the quality of their water, which must be carefully filtered, painstakingly purified and meticulously monitored. It took nearly forty years of research, experimentation, trial and error for fish farmers to figure out how to raise white sturgeon successfully.
Much of that research was performed by scientists at the University of California at Davis, one of the world’s top agricultural research institutions.
The results of all that labour can be seen in an aisle of Corti Brothers’ Grocery, Sacramento’s famous gourmet food shop. Each tiny jar of Sterling California Caviar sells for about $300. "The caviar is very good, it's very high quality," said Manager Darryl Corti.
Of course the big question is: How does it taste?
As Bellman opened a fresh tin, a whiff of caviar aroma transported me back, Proust-like, to a fond corner of my past.
Your correspondent spent several years in Moscow some decades ago as a reporter for a US TV network. Periodically, our office manager, a stout lady named Alyssa (whom everyone assumed worked for the Russian security service) would bustle around the office whispering conspiratorially, "Caviarski chelavek zdes!" which meant, "the caviar guy is here!"
Then we would crowd around the Caviar Guy, who brought (smuggled) tax-free caviar from Southern Russia for a select group of clients.
That illicit caviar tasted like ambrosia.
Bellman carefully handed me a tiny plastic spoon heaped with glistening, blue-black caviar. I raised it to my lips. Ahh.
As they say in Moscow, atliychna (excellent)!
Caviar lovers, bon appetit.