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Eureka! It’s from California

Times Staff Writer

It takes two fish cutters to lift the still-quivering 85-pound white sturgeon onto the prep sink. As one of them slices the fish’s belly open from head to tail, he explains that the biggest, best eggs for caviar are near the head.

To my eye, the dark gray eggs all look large and well rounded. The roe appears to fill the entire fish; in fact it makes up roughly 12% of its weight.

I spoon out some eggs to taste and am struck by how firm, almost hard, they are. When I press them against the roof of my mouth with my tongue, they don’t pop like cured caviar would. But when I gently bite them they explode with a delightful creaminess.

I’m swept away into a daydream of seaside villages and Volga River fishing boats, but then I remember I haven’t left California.

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It’s caviar season, and devotees of Caspian Sea caviar are reeling. Prices are nearly twice what they were last New Year’s Eve, topping $125 for an ounce of beluga. Supplies are short. And the quality? Be prepared to be disappointed, unless you’re paying top dollar.

The Caspian, source of 90% of the world’s caviar, is an ecological disaster, so add guilt and a touch of queasiness to the price tag -- that is, if you are willing to consider it at all.

California is where it’s happening in caviar now. Just outside Sacramento, Stolt Sea Farm and Tsar Nicoulai are producing gray pearls of sturgeon roe that demand respect.

While all kinds of American caviars have been cropping up on menus and in magazines, it is California’s white sturgeon caviar that chefs as uncompromising as Joachim Splichal and seafood restaurants as fussy as downtown L.A.'s Water Grill are featuring alongside Caspian beluga and osetra.

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Stolt and Tsar Nicoulai are the source of all American white sturgeon caviar; they’re the only farms producing it. (Other companies buy and package caviar that, for whatever reason, Stolt and Tsar Nicoulai can’t use.)

American trout and salmon caviars have their fans. To a far lesser extent, so do caviars from other native American sturgeon -- Atlantic, hackleback and bowfin -- as well as paddlefish and whitefish. However, the white sturgeon native to Sacramento’s rivers and the Pacific is America’s closest relative to Caspian sturgeon.

Josiah Citrin, chef-owner of Melisse in Santa Monica, likes the lightest gray-colored California osetra, with its relatively large, beady eggs. “Iranian caviar has a little finer flavor,” he says, “but there is very little real difference.”

Personally, I wouldn’t need caviar were it not for a particular bottle of Russian Standard vodka that’s been sitting untouched in my freezer for months, a last-minute purchase at the end of a week in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Every lunch and dinner my husband and I shared there began and ended with ice-cold vodka served straight up. Once home, we assumed we’d have a Pavlovian response to the mere sight of the bottle of silvery liquid with Cyrillic letters on the label and rush to be transported back to an extraordinarily memorable, if slightly inebriated, vacation.

It didn’t work that way. In St. Petersburg, along with the vodka, we’d devoured piles of lovely caviar. We ate it daily, starting our first night with a trio of exquisite beluga, osetra and sevruga ceremoniously presented to us at the Caviar Bar in the Grand Hotel Europe. Our final meal consisted of blini slathered with who-knows-what jet black caviar at Blinnyi Domik, a smoky piano bar-pancake house in Dostoevski’s old neighborhood.

We rarely spent more than $65 for those generous piles of caviar and sometimes as little as $20. It was an extravagance we rationalized would cost more in Los Angeles.

We had no idea how much more. Forget about Russian caviar altogether: It hasn’t been legal to import it for more than a year due to trade restrictions.

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Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Caspian Sea sturgeon stocks have been in a sharp decline, says Steven Capozzola of Caviar Emptor, a consortium of environmental groups -- the Natural Resources Defense Council, SeaWeb and the University of Miami’s Pew Institute for Ocean Science.

In the Soviet era, hatcheries kept the Caspian well stocked with beluga, osetra and sevruga, and the totalitarian government kept poachers in check, Capozzola says. When the Soviet region around the Caspian broke into four states -- Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan -- fierce competition created a free-for-all market, along with rampant poaching. Stocks of the highly prized beluga quickly fell by 90%.

“We wouldn’t be here if the Soviet Union hadn’t fallen,” says Peter Struffennegger, manager of Stolt Sea Farm. It’s been an 18-year struggle, but with demand now skyrocketing, he says, Stolt finally has proper caviar to offer the world.

Farm raised

In a concrete pond next to Struffennegger, hundreds of foot-long, prehistoric-looking sturgeon dart through the water; they never stop moving. A few pools down the long row of indoor ponds, the fish are a couple of years older, slower and already gaining that fat, muscular look of mature sturgeon.

By their fourth year, only females remain; the males have been sold. After that, Struffennegger says, there is no market for the meat, which can be tough. “You can’t give it away,” he says.

Sacramento is ground zero for sturgeon farming, primarily because the original white sturgeon stock that UC Davis researchers cultivated in the 1970s came from area rivers. But it’s also because of the water. “It’s easy to find and comes up out of the ground at 70 degrees,” says Struffennegger, explaining that white sturgeon grow more quickly in water that’s warm.

It takes at least eight years at Stolt to raise an 85- to 100-pound fish bearing roe. In colder water, farmed fish have taken 12 to 15 years to mature.

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Since its introduction a decade ago, American-farmed sturgeon caviar has been dismissed by aficionados of the Caspian variety, who complained about its overly salty, muddy taste.

But those days are over, Struffennegger says. By managing their diet, fish farms eliminated the muddy taste associated with these bottom-feeding fish.

Freshness was a more complicated problem only recently solved. “We used to lose 80% of our caviar to spoilage,” Struffennegger says. No longer.

White sturgeon caviar is preserved with salt. Too much salt breaks down the fish eggs, eventually turning them to mush. It took years of trial and error to figure out how to limit the salt. The solution was to store the caviar as close as possible to its freezing point -- around 24 degrees Fahrenheit -- without letting it freeze, which also destroys the eggs.

White sturgeon spawn from late January to early May. Only in the last couple of years has Stolt been able to keep all its product in good condition through December, the caviar buying season, says Struffennegger. The added age is a plus, he says, giving it the richer, more complex mineral taste associated with Caspian Sea caviar.

Just south of Sacramento, the only other white sturgeon producer in the U.S., Tsar Nicoulai, is run very differently.

Dafne Engstrom owns Tsar Nicoulai with her husband, Mats. She makes the caviar herself, orchestrating the removal of the roe after her fish cutters slice open the sturgeon, pressing the eggs through a wire mesh to remove the thin bits of ovarian tissue that cling to them. She washes the eggs with water, then cures them with soluble flakes of sterilized salt for malossol (meaning lightly salted) caviar.

It’s impossible to harvest the eggs and return the sturgeons to the tanks to spawn again because the ovaries are removed in the process.

The caviar that Dafne Engstrom is making this day in early December will be shipped to consumers for the holidays. As she talks, I slurp caviar off the back of my hand, as Engstrom has shown me to do if I want the purest flavors. Then I try some on warm, freshly made blini with sour cream. Which is more delicious? I can’t decide.

But it’s not spawning season -- so how can Tsar Nicoulai harvest the roe?

“You just play with the water temperature to trick the fish into thinking it’s time to spawn,” Engstrom says with a sly smile.

A smaller operation

While Stolt expects to harvest 20,000 pounds of caviar next year, Tsar Nicoulai is a mom-and-pop operation. Buying up sturgeon raised by smaller producers across the Western states, the Engstroms have collected the fish in a series of outdoor, above-ground pools. The couple say they harvested 5,000 pounds this year.

Longtime importers, the Engstroms offer Black Sea caviar through their website and at the company’s restaurant, Tsar Nicoulai Cafe in San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace. Their smoked and poached sturgeon and salmon have the firm texture and moist, slightly smoky taste of fish from their native Sweden.

Stolt and Tsar Nicoulai sell their caviar for about $45 an ounce.

In Russia, Caspian caviar is inexpensive (cheap, by U.S. standards) because it can’t be exported to the U.S. or other important Western markets, says Inga Saffron, a former Moscow correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer whose 2002 book, “Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy,” chronicles the devastation of Caspian Sea sturgeon. When she arrived in Russia in the mid-1990s, she says she paid $150 a kilo for black market caviar. By 2000, uncontrolled poaching and an increasingly leery international market had left the home market flooded; caviar cost $20 a kilo.

“Russians are very cynical,” says Saffron. “They are doing nothing to police themselves. There is very little environmental consciousness.”

In 1998, the Geneva-based Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a voluntary group of countries including the United States that want to regulate trade in at-risk species, tried to bring order to the chaos with new reporting requirements.

The group also set import quotas that dramatically lowered the amount of legally available caviar in member nations. Last year, when Russia and Turkmenistan failed to comply with the regulations, the U.S. banned all caviar imports from those countries. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has beefed up enforcement, confiscating questionable caviar at the border and prosecuting American importers found holding black market caviar.

“There is still a lot of caviar coming into the U.S. illegally,” says Phaedra Doukakis, a scientist with the Pew Institute for Ocean Science. “But overall, there is much less available.”

A bit of Russian caviar is still available in the U.S., left over from the 2003 harvest, says Rod Mitchell, whose Browne Trading Co. supplies caviar to many of America’s top restaurants, including Daniel in New York City.

Imported caviar, which is washed with boric acid to reduce the salt and firm up the eggs, has an 18-month shelf life if stored properly in airtight tins at around 25 degrees Fahrenheit. In glass jars, it lasts only a couple of weeks in home refrigerators. Once opened, it should be eaten within a day or two.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows caviar with traces of borax to be imported, but it doesn’t allow borax to be added to food produced in the U.S.

But even imported caviar deteriorates over time, says Mitchell, noting that any Russian product lingering on the market will likely be mushy and watery, with broken eggs and a fishy taste, if there is much flavor at all.

How do you know if the purchase you’re contemplating will be such disappointing stuff? You don’t. There are no U.S. requirements that imported caviar be labeled either for freshness or for country of origin. You can ask retailers where their caviar comes from and the date of harvest, but you have to trust their answers.

Iranian caviar often is labeled as such, Mitchell says, because it’s a selling point. The Iranian fisheries ministry does the best job of monitoring caviar production in the Caspian, he says, noting that a 20-year ban on the sale of Iranian caviar in the U.S. was dropped in 2001.

Lee Hefter, executive chef at Spago Beverly Hills, serves nothing but Iranian osetra, although the rich, creamy Russian beluga is his favorite. “I haven’t had beluga for a year, and I’m willing to pay top dollar for it,” laments Hefter, still hopeful that one day he’ll be able to get it again.

But I’ve given up on Caspian caviar of all kinds: It’s too expensive in every way. To relive the joy of digging into a towering pile of large, pearly gray sturgeon eggs, we’ll be serving California osetra with our Russian vodka. With hot-off-the-griddle buckwheat blini and sour cream, it will be nothing short of fabulous.

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Golden State caviar: a tasting

Both American producers of farm-raised white sturgeon caviar -- Stolt Sea Farm and Tsar Nicoulai -- are quick to compare their caviar to imported osetra. Ideally, the eggs should be translucent gray and firm, but springy to the touch; they should cling to each other, without seeming stuck together or gluey. They should “pop” when bitten and have some complexity of flavor, but not taste fishy or muddy.

The Times tasting panel met recently to taste the caviars of these two producers. On the panel were restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, columnists Russ Parsons and David Shaw and food editor Leslie Brenner.

At a preliminary tasting, we had sampled Tsar Nicoulai and Stolt caviars, using sevruga and osetra caviars from Russia (purchased at Surfas in Culver City for $45 per ounce and $50 per ounce, respectively) as controls. We also sampled other American caviars, including paddlefish and hackleback sturgeon.

At that tasting, the panel found the Russian caviar to be of inferior quality, mushy, with broken eggs. We determined to buy our control caviar from a top purveyor for the next tasting to have a baseline for comparison. The Stolt Sea Farm caviar, whether labeled Sterling or Petrossian, was the hands-down winner, though we felt the Tsar Nicoulai caviar we had purchased at Surfas had not been stored properly and may have been spoiled.

Of the other types of American caviar, the clear favorite -- and a great bargain at $15 an ounce -- was the wild Atlantic sturgeon caviar from Walter’s Caviar. Though not as complex as any of the white sturgeon caviars, it had a bright flavor, without any fishiness; the eggs had a nice pop.

However, as we learned more about the ecological issues facing sturgeon, we wondered how it was possible to sell Atlantic sturgeon caviar when there is a 40-year moratorium on catching these fish along most of the East Coast, including Georgia, the home state of Walter’s Caviar. When we had ordered the caviar, we were told it was Atlantic sturgeon; the tin also clearly says Atlantic sturgeon. But in follow-up conversations with Walter’s Caviar, we were told that we had been sent hackleback, a freshwater river sturgeon. As a result, we aren’t certain what we tasted and don’t recommend ordering from this company.

Other problems with the caviar ordered through the Internet: After ordering white sturgeon caviar from Caviar Direct, we were sent hackleback. Another company, Gourmet Direct International, listed “sturgeon” caviar. Only by calling and asking did we learn it was hackleback caviar.

Several online stores sell American white sturgeon caviar. The source is almost invariably Stolt, which sells off its lesser caviar to other distributors. We determined it was best to order directly from Stolt, which narrowed the field tremendously.

For the control in the second tasting, we purchased Iranian osetra from Petrossian for $160 for 1.75 ounces. We tasted new samples of the caviars produced by the two California farms.

This time, our favorite domestic caviar was Stolt, both the Sterling and Petrossian labels.

The Iranian caviar was somewhat more impressive than the California caviars -- it had a pleasingly complex mineral tang, though not much “pop.” At such an exorbitant price, we all found it disappointing.

Sterling Royal. Creamy gray pearls of caviar with an appealing rich sea taste: Along with the Sterling Imperial, this was the hands-down favorite. Available from www.sterlingcaviar.com or Stolt Sea Farm, (800) 525-0333. $44 per ounce.

Sterling Imperial. Stolt Sea Farm’s top grade of caviar. The panel couldn’t discern much of a difference between it and the Sterling Royal. Available (in limited quantities) for $52 per ounce.

Sterling Classic. Not as complex as the Royal, but fresh and appealing, perfectly respectable. $40 per ounce.

Petrossian Tsar Imperial Transmontanus. This is the same caviar as Sterling Royal, distributed by Petrossian. Available online, www.petrossian.com, and at Petrossian Paris, 321 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 271-0576. $88 for 1.75 ounces.

Petrossian Royal Transmontanus. The same caviar as Sterling Classic. $75 for 1.75 ounces.

Tsar Nicoulai. The large, well-rounded eggs were too soft and a little too salty. Available at Surfas for $48 per ounce, at Santa Monica Seafood for $55 per ounce, and online at www.tsarnicoulai.com for $53 per ounce.

-- Corie Brown


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