THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN CAVIAR
Ever wondered how many wild sturgeons live on the US territory, or better put, how many lived before the caviar boom at the beginning of the 20th century?
You may be surprised to find that the luxury food of the aristocracy, served during important events and praised during winter holidays was actually used to be handed out like a bowl of peanuts at your favorite bar.
We must go back, to the 19thcentury when the US was still young. Back then you could find caviar at any saloon, almost given away free, as the salt inspired man (and women) to drink more.
The sturgeon, a fish caviar is harvested from, was found to be abundant in the rivers of North America. Henry Schacht, a German immigrant, took advantage of this abundance and in 1873 set up a business to export caviar to Europe, and Russia. American caviar was sold only for a pound an ounce, it came in very cheap and could be found anywhere on the market.
Other entrepreneurs followed, and at the begging of the 20th century there was a caviar boom and America was leading. The most bizarre thing was that once imported by the Russians, caviar was relabeled and shipped back to the US as “Russian Caviar”. There is one report dating from that time, issued by the state of Pennsylvania stating that 90% of caviar, imported as Russian Caviar, was actually American in origin. How bizarre is that?
The caviar boom didn’t last for long as many sturgeons were being overfished. This of course spiked the prices and started making American Caviar less and less available.
THE RETURN OF AMERICAN CAVIAR
The overfishing got to the point when it was considered to raise sturgeons in aqua farms. This happened in the early 1960’s because the prices got exorbitant. Later on, The Romanoff Caviar Company turned to salmon roe, lumpfish and later in 1982 to whitefish. These proved to be more economical that the imported caviar types.
Before moving on it would be wise to actually point out what American caviar is exactly.
WHAT IS AMERICAN CAVIAR?
There are actually a couple of ambiguities about American Caviar.
American Caviar can refer to any caviar that comes from the US. That means not only from sturgeon, but also from some other alternatives, such as from Bowfin.
Surprisingly, sometimes, it’s common to label the same Bowfin as American Black Caviar.
Hackleback caviar is also marketed as American caviar.
The wild Sturgeon indigenous to North America, the Wild Atlantic Sturgeon found along the Southeast Atlantic coast, the Lake Sturgeon of the Midwest, the Shovelnose Sturgeon, of the Tennessee River (whose caviar is sold as Hackleback) and the American White Sturgeon of the Pacific Northwest, which is farmed extensively in California.
Now, back to our story of the American Caviar. As it was confirmed by many, American caviar was somehow kept in the shadow of the more famed and prized Caspian caviars that were being imported. However, that came to a halt once it became obvious that the Caspian caviar was critically endangered.
The ban from 2006 on beluga imports and all wild Caspian caviar, following with the agreement in 2010 by the Caspian Sea nations that they will stop fishing the sturgeon, sprung American caviar back to its former position. There was a literal rush to start sturgeon farming. Domestic American caviar was back.
Wild sturgeon farming mainly runs around Sacramento Valley where in the 1980s a Soviet scientist named Serge Doroshov, launched the industry of California-white-sturgeon farming. It is not only the indigenous fish of America that are raised, but also prestigious Osetra, Sevruga and even Beluga. Farms have also emerged in both North Carolina and Florida and in landlocked states, like Idaho.
TYPES OF AMERICAN CAVIAR
Lake Sturgeon – also known as rock sturgeon, found in the areas that were linked by the large lakes that formed as the glaciers retreated from North America at the end of the last ice age. Its caviar is comparable in size, color and flavor, to Russian beluga.
White Sturgeon - most common American sturgeon, known to weigh up to 2,000 pounds. This fish belongs to the Pacific, from the Gulf of Alaska to Monterey, California. The taste is very much alike the Osetra.
Idaho White Sturgeon – Often compared to the beluga sturgeon, this fish is found in Hagerman Valley, along the Snake River.
Hackleback Sturgeon - native to the Mississippi/Missouri River System, it’s the most abundant wild sturgeon. Known also as shovelnose sturgeon, or sand sturgeon, it is a small fish in comparison to other sturgeons. This affects the eggs and they are as a result small. Always black, or near black in color, the taste has a subtle flavor.
Paddlefish – not a sturgeon on its own, but the roe it has is considered quite appealing. The taste has an earthly aroma, very smooth, but distinct from traditional caviar. Although not a sturgeon, it’s still a primitive fish and a cousin to them. The Paddlefish is found in the rivers of Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri.
Bowfin (Amia Calva) – it’s the fish with many names, such as swampfish, mudfish, cypress trout, and by the Cajun name “choupique”. It is as archaic freshwater fish, the only remaining living specimen of its order. The roe is called “Cajun Caviar” in Louisiana and it has distinctive, earthly flavor.
Whitefish or Golden Caviar – native to the northern Great Lakes its roe has a fine, firm, pale-orange texture. The roe is also quite small with a crisp after the bite. Due to a less complex flavor it can be easily infused with others tastes.
Salmon Caviar - commonly known as red caviar, North American salmon caviar usually comes from the Chum and Silver Salmon that live in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, or the Chinook salmon, found in the Great Lakes.
In the wild, Alabama sturgeon, Pallid sturgeon, and the Shovelnose sturgeon are endangered.
SUCCESS OF PRODUCTION
It is often said that the success of American caviar production can be attributed to the quality that exceeds expectations.
Most farms follow a golden role of three important steps, selecting the best fish, maintaining clarity and temperature of the water, and finally the quality of production. It has to be fast and effective, the caviar should be in a tin 10 minutes after the procedure starts.
Aqua farms in California tend to boast that their ponds are full of purest filtered artesian well water.
Fish have to be fed on a natural diet with food that is toxic-free, only then can we speak about caviar that can go against Osetra and Beluga.
In the end the key is sustainability.
For example, Bond Caviar, an online purveyor based in New York, has assembled a collection of sustainably farmed varieties, most amazing White Sturgeon and Salmon Roe. Given that the sturgeon is obtained through a process that guarantees consistent quality, the roe is full of freshness, perfectly rich in its color and abundant in creamy and clean flavor.
The purveyor is there to verify that the caviar has consistency and uniformity of the size, superior freshness and richness of flavor, firm texture, and just the right color. Caviar that is sustainable and with consistent supply, preferred harvesting and curing methods.
The perfect White Sturgeon caviar is very alike the finest Osetra.