As we come out of the “COVID Coma,” people are looking for an elevated experience. Once a delicacy seen only on menus in Michelin star restaurants or gracing the party tables of the ultra-wealthy, caviar is now more readily available to the public.
For centuries, the most desired caviar came from Iran or Russia produced with eggs harvested from wild beluga sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea. However, overfishing there eventually put sturgeon on an endangered species list and supplies dwindled. True caviar comes from sturgeon, and with a diminished population the industry now uses aquaculture to raise the fish. But done right, the practice of using a sustainably managed farming practice also results in a better-quality product.
To learn more, we visited Sterling Caviar’s fish farm in Elverta, one of the company’s five locations within Northern California.
For the past 39 years Sterling has been successfully producing quality commercially farmed caviar from white sturgeon, an ancient fish native to the West Coast. The largest freshwater species in North America, sturgeon grows from 15 to 20 feet long. In the wild they can weigh a ton and live between 60 and 100 years.
The company initially borrowed adult sturgeons from and returned them to the Sacramento River for spawning purposes. Alan Morris, Product & QA Manager at Sterling Caviar says, “Sterling Caviar cultivated white sturgeon with an exceptional bloodline.” With this start, Sterling Caviar established a brood stock and developed a sustainable operation. Today Sterling has grown to become America’s largest, award-winning, domestic caviar company now supplying customers both in the US and internationally.
In the Elverta location all aquaculture takes place in two sprawling, cavernous warehouses. 79 fish tanks of various sizes are sheltered from the sun creating a shaded, cool water environment where these prehistoric bottom feeders are nurtured for caviar production.
Staff closely monitor and control all stages of sturgeon growth, from crossbreeding to egg fertilization and incubation right down to computer-controlled water temperature and feed allotments per tanks. Warehouse number one houses the “Hatchery” where the fish are first hatched and raised until one year of age. It also houses the “Nursery” where fish aged one to three years of age grow. The second building called the “Grow Out” houses huge tanks for the older, larger fish that at this stage resemble a cross between a shark and a catfish.
The biomass of each tank is closely managed to ensure optimal growth rates throughout each stage of maturation to guarantee there is always sufficient volumes of water. Even the food fed to the sturgeon is scientifically formulated and specially manufactured to ensure the healthiest quality of life for the sturgeon.
Harvesting and Processing
In an aquaculture environment, on average, it takes eight short years for sturgeon to mature to a point of being ready to produce eggs as opposed to twelve in the wild. Sterling only uses roe from white sturgeon sustainably farmed and raised on their local fish farms in California. The timing for harvesting the roe is critical such that cooler water is used to slow the sturgeon’s metabolism to ensure quality and safety in the harvesting process. Once harvested, the detailed process of handcrafting the caviar begins with grading by taste, size, and color of the eggs themselves.
Salting and aging are necessary to reach optimum quality. Sterling uses a proprietary type of salt to preserve the eggs. And this Morris says is very important. A hard minimum amount of salt is necessary for safety reasons but not oversalting, so it doesn’t damage the eggs in storage. Morris says the company volunteers to be inspected by US Department of Commerce every three months to ensure a safe operation. Temperature control is also important for preserving the taste.
After canning, tins are then stored at 28 – 30 degrees Fahrenheit to develop the rich, robust flavors characteristic of Sterling Caviar before it is marketed.
Grades and Flavors
Like fine wine there are different flavors and grades of caviar. Sterling produces five grades – Classic, Royal, Supreme, Two-Color, and Imperial. The entry level Classic grade provides a nutty, robust smooth flavor. The Royal, a grade that Morris recommends for first time caviar buyers, pairs a salty sea aroma with rich, buttery, and mildly sweet flavors. The Supreme grade provides a complex combination of hazelnut and earthy flavors. The Two-Color, made with delicate and refined brown and green eggs, is produced by a single sturgeon featuring a vegetal taste with minerality and a creamy undertone. And the Imperial, Sterling’s highest grade, provides a nut-inflected, buttery flavor with an unforgettable creaminess.
Morris says the company used to produce equal amounts of all grades of caviar with each harvest. But through continuous improvement in its farming and processing practices, the highest grades now account for 85% of Sterling’s production.
Morris says, “How the sturgeon was raised and processed drives the quality of the caviar.” And that quality has gotten Sterling noticed. This year Sterling brought home two sofi ™ awards – the Gold Award in the Seafood Category and Product of the Year. “In a crowded field of specialty foods, the latter award is especially satisfying,” says Morris.
Now that you know a little bit about caviar and why quality matters, here are some tips on how to serve it along with suggested food and wine pairings.
For optimal results, Sterling Caviar recommends serving caviar in its original tin. Alternatively, it can be served in a glass or crystal dish over ice. Avoid serving it with silver or metal spoons as it can alter your taste buds’ perception of the flavor. Neutral materials such as mother of pearl, wood, bone, or even plastic are better choices for utensils.
Drinks to Serve with Caviar
Ice cold vodka is the classic alcohol to pair with caviar. But because it is such a complex delicacy, wine also pairs well with it. Chilled white wines such as Pinot Grigio, Albariño, Grüner Veltliner, or Riesling complement caviar well. And sparkling wine always adds a special touch to the occasion while pairing well with caviar. But a light red wine like Pinot Noir, or Grenache or a dry Rosé work well, too.
Pairing with Food
For food, the traditional accompaniments include blini pancakes (your serving vessel) topped with chopped hard-boiled eggs, chives, diced red onions, and crème fraiche. But Morris says, “The trend now is to serve it on potato chips. The salt in the caviar and the salt on the chip are not overwhelming.” Add chives and crème fraiche to this crunchy treat.
Or sprinkle caviar on deviled eggs, Eggs Benedict, or any kind of potatoes. For a real party pleaser, serve it on top of oysters, scallops, or sashimi. A famous bar in New York offers caviar sliders paired, naturally of course, with champagne.
And most importantly, don’t be afraid to experiment! Caviar is more versatile than you might think.
For tips on serving and storing caviar, read more on Sterling’s guide: “Caviar 101.”
This article was co-written with Pam Baker.