Can caviar made in North Carolina stand up to the more expensive Chinese caviar? A local farm attempts to convince Americans to take a bite
There’s not much time. Two people have thirty minutes in which to weigh wash and taste with salt and then bottle the black pearls before they lose their quality. “No one likes mushy caviar,” Mader says to us.
Mader is the manager of LaPaz farm located in Lenoir, North Carolina, located on Lenoir, North Carolina. It is located in the Happy Valley region about 90 minutes north-west of Charlotte. Together with its neighbor farm Marshallberg Farm, located in Smyrna on the North Carolina coast, LaPaz is the most significant farm-raised source of Russian starfish across the United States.
In these buildings that appear to be modest, an ambitious project in sustainability is being conducted with each bowl of caviar harvested. LaPaz, as well as Marshallberg Farms, are striving to demonstrate how this enterprise can be viable in the sense that farming Russian Sturgeon that is now threatened in the wild is economically viable, even profitable within the United States as a sustainable source of caviar.
The farms were created in response to the worrying patterns of wild caviar. Beluga caviar, the sought-after gold standard of this lux delicacy, has been prohibited from being imported into the United States since 2005 because the Sturgeon that produce the popular fish eggs are in danger. The ban is even on the fishing of Russian sturgeons, which are the primary origin of osetra, at its home in the Caspian Sea. Osetra caviar that is advertised to be “wild” is either from the black market or is not actually osetra caviar.
Agriculture in the US is emerging as a viable alternative. There is a myriad of challenges that need to be addressed, from animals’ rights to the taste of caviar produced by farms over wild, and particularly the question of whether American farms are able to raise awareness of the benefits of their own caviar, whereas the imported caviar from China is less expensive.
When the fish cutter has removed the caviar from the fish, newly taken eggs are then transferred through a connecting window to the farm’s long-time veteran Leigh King and her colleague in the processing area that is kept at 59F to safeguard the product. They separate the caviar off of the connective tissue that is pink, clean and drain eggs in large bowls, then smooth the eggs using a spatula and an angled mesh sheet, like they are spreading frosting. King hunts down sub-par eggs or any impurities using a pair of tweezers. Repeats the smoothing process and searching and then drains the remaining drops of water from the caviar to create what appears like a soft puppy pad.
“We want the eggs to have a good pop,” Mader, who also serves as the official taster as she scoops an egg. It is her responsibility to monitor and control the fish to ensure that farms distribute their harvests equally all through the year. If the Sturgeon doesn’t get harvested when they’re ready, they could begin to absorb the eggs, leading to soft caviar.
Mader shows the eggs’ solidity between her thumb and forefinger before offering me a little on the spoon made of plastic. Fresh and unseasoned as can be caviar the eggs have a captivating taste that is more than just a taste. As I’m not one to talk about the notes of cherry, tobacco, or other wine-related notes, I’m unable to tell if the eggs are buttery or contain the essence of hazelnut. When King adds salt, 4.25 percent, based on the total volume, and Mader provides me with another spoonful, I can begin to see the reason for all the fuss.
In a short time, it is stuffed into containers that are weighed down to expel any air. The caviar continues in its quest to take up salt. It may be aged for one, three, or six months before becoming a more refined, sweeter, and nutty character, something that caviar distributors usually enjoy – and making distributors happy is important, considering the financials.
LaPaz’s prices on their website vary from $65 up to $93 for a single-ounce tin. A typical sturgeon can produce one or two kg (4.4lb) of caviar. An estimate that is conservative could predict upwards of $2,000 of retail sales from one fish. At the moment, distribution companies are the biggest clients, and they purchase caviar wholesale and then sell it to restaurants, hotels, restaurants, and other outlets. The past was when, as a former proprietor, LaPaz sold its caviar to Lincoln Ristorante at Lincoln Center as well as Lincoln Ristorante at Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and other locations.
Marshallberg purchased LaPaz in 2017, mainly due to the fact that the farms required their collective strength to be able to take an opportunity to become profitable while also supplying large distributors and being able to compete with the lower cost and more plentiful Chinese product. They believe that their investment as a labor of love in a highly sought-after industry will yield rewards.
“A big challenge is an education,” says Lianne Won, who is in charge of the marketing of LaPaz as well as Marshallberg. “How do you get people to make the step to spend a little more money but be able to say this product is sustainable, not harmful to the environment, and supporting the US economy?” When you eat caviar at a restaurant it’s about having fun, not thinking about it, Won adds. “If you go to Las Vegas and order caviar, you aren’t going to ask if it’s sustainable.”
Caviar was never synonymous with luxury. Sturgeon are from the age of dinosaurs, and thanks to their back ridges known as scutes, they still bear an evocative resemblance to children’s dinosaur toys. They were once regarded as abundant in the words of Inga Saffron, the author of Caviar: The Fascinating History and Future Uncertain of world’s most Coveted Delicacy, and their eggs weren’t anything special.
The majority of the world’s caviar in the 19th century was sourced from US waters until Sturgeon in the US started to decline, Saffron writes. The attention then turned towards that of the Soviet Union, which largely managed the market late in the century. When there was a break in the Soviet Union, which fell apart in 1991, overfishing in the Caspian Sea and elsewhere accelerated. A lower supply and more demand in western regions resulted in caviar becoming an indicator of prestige and wealth. In the last two decades, when wild Sturgeon was scarce, businessmen have recognized the potential in caviar and have started caviar farm operations within Israel, France, and Uruguay.
The rise in demand has made caviar a desirable ingredient for a meal that is a celebration. Naturally, it can also be a source of extravagantness. The Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort caused a worldwide controversy this year when they served caviar using plastic spoons instead of the traditional spoons made of mother-of-pearl. (Mother-of-pearl is likely to be better as it’s non-reactive and won’t alter the taste of caviar as silver can.)
Joe Doll, one of many founders of the Lenoir farm, was a pilot flying cargo aircraft from and to Russia (and acquired a love for caviar while flying these trips). He was able to witness in person how poaching and overfishing are reducing the numbers of Russian Sturgeon. This species is losing over 70 percent of its breeding areas within the Caspian Basin in the last seventy years, and over the last 45 years, there has been a 90% decrease in this Russian sturgeon population in the Caspian Basin.
The DollDoll was a skilled engineer to tackle these issues with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering as well as experience working in an entrepreneurial family company that developed packing materials. The engineer was involved with designing the Happy Valley farm’s design all the way to the water-filtration process. the farm utilizes 50 gallons of water per minute, and the majority is recycled and cleaned. Later, it was renamed Atlantic Caviar & Sturgeon, the farm began introducing its first hatchlings in tanks in the year 2005. “It was just going to be a hobby,” DollDoll recalls, even though the goals of the owners increased.
In the ocean, IJ Won, Lianne’s father, who retired as an NC State University geophysicist and businessman, is also worried about the declining fish stocks. He began the construction of Marshallberg Farm at the beginning of 2008 in order to show that aquaculture could be an alternative that is sustainable to wild fishing. Their farm of Won was merged into his Happy Valley facility in June 2017. “Both businesses were too small to be competitive. It’s better that he’s got all of this in one place,” says DollDoll, who is a friend of Won.
The process of producing caviar is a laborious procedure that takes many years. Marshallberg and LaPaz have yet to breed their own caviar and bring eggs in from Germany to hatch them at the coast and then ship up to, say, a thousand tiny sturgeon at a stretch into Happy Valley. Happy Valley facility. The fish develop in tanks until they’re the age of four to five years. Older. When they reach that age, “we sex them,” Mader states, or divide males and females into separate tanks.
To identify if a sturgeon is female, a person first calms the fish in a trough using an electric current of a tiny size. This ancient Russian method of relaxing your fish is “a really neat way of doing it with minimal invasion to the fish”, Mader states. “You can even touch the current using your hands. It’s not too painful, just a tiny sensation.” Then – however hard it may be to imagine, the fish receives an ultrasound. The images display either testes or Ovaries, and when the fish is female, it will show whether she is still in the embryo stage, close to maturation, or ready to harvest. The team performs an embryo biopsy to verify the quality of the eggs.
Females that are nearing harvest are placed in separate tanks filled with clean, cold water. They are then removed from their diet for a period of four to six weeks. This is similar to what happens in nature, where Sturgeon that migrate to the spawning grounds may not eat for months. This prevents any off-flavor or muddy from the fish or eggs. Following that, the fish can be cleaned. From hatching eggs to harvesting, it can take between seven and eight years. Until now seven years have been common in LaPaz as well as Marshallberg.
Between 10 and 14% of a female sturgeon’s weight that is harvested is in caviar. The farms make caviar using just 4.25 percent salt. However, as the production grows, they may modify salt levels or the degree of aging in order to increase their product range.
Chef Clark Barlowe is a big fan of the products they’re selling. At Heirloom, the restaurant he runs, the restaurant he runs with his wife, Charlotte Restaurant, the chef originally served caviar over deviled eggs and served in traditional Russian fashion with bellini as other accompaniments. From then on, he’s experimented with new dishes like caviar grits and shrimp, which are served with caviar at the last minute before serving. He prefers using fresh Sturgeon too. Sturgeon is fat which is “salmon on steroids in terms of the fat content,” which makes it a great choice for grilling and for making bacon. Barlow recently dried the meat of the fish for 6 days in a mixture of sugar, salt spices, wild crinkle-root, and spices and then smoked it using applewood, then cut it up, and then baked it.
LaPaz, as well as Marshallberg, is the one and only Russian Sturgeon farm that can produce five tons of Sturgeon per year. There are a handful of other small US farms that are producing Russian Sturgeon. The majority of Americans haven’t had the pleasure of tasting the fish yet, but Barlowe has discovered that the caviar is comparable to, if not superior, to other caviars he’s tasted. He is particularly fond of the dark hue of the caviar of LaPaz as well as Marshallberg: “I would put that up against any caviar anywhere in the world.”
The production of 40,000-60,000 of these fish at any one moment requires lots of effort, as do small-scale companies in other sectors. The two farms face pressure on prices from cheaper imports, Mader states, while eating a piece of the fish.
The biggest risk is China which produces 35 percent of the world’s caviar and is gaining media attention about its Kaluga Queen label. Kaluga states they sell caviar at 60 tons each year as opposed to the one-ton amount. Mader claims that the farms could produce this year, though the quantity could be higher based on the demand.
“As far as our sales go, China is a big challenge,” Won states. Osetra caviar is sourced from China and brought into the US, and sold at as little as $350 per kilogram (2.2lb) wholesale. The price attracts caviar distributors and middlemen who sell the product to restaurants. “We have to sell our product a lot higher than that,” Won declares due to the larger costs of running the caviar farms within the US.
The prices are also higher. LaPaz, along with Marshallberg, is paid US wages and makes edible products that meet US standard regulations. If distributors are trying to bargain the price down, Mader reminds them that China’s safety record isn’t always perfect.
“The quality may not be as high. We do not know what’s inside it – hormones, antibiotics, or chemicals. Regulations aren’t quite as rigorous as in our home country of the US.” Certain Chinese producers might make use of Borax to keep their caviar. It’s the same ingredient, I am aware, that I’ve sprinkled on my couch to eliminate fleas that my dog brought into.
Mader is also quoted as citing a dispute regarding Sturgeon from China could be secretly hybrids, rather than pure Russian Sturgeon that have osetra eggs. Her aim is to collaborate with distributors who respect and recognize these farms in their capacity in their role as they are American businesses. (The farms are currently in negotiations with a major distributor to sell the caviar.) In the end, the aim is to sell 20% of sales going to consumers and chefs through the website and 80% of sales to distributors.
In recent times, a few individuals have challenged the notion that Sturgeon can be raised in a humane manner. In January of this year, Scottish actor Alan Cumming demanded Argyll and Bute council, an authority in the local area that manages parts of Scotland’s south-western coast as well as its numerous islands, to block plans to establish the first caviar farm in Scotland. Loch Fyne, a lake that is already famous for the oysters and shellfish it has, and also a restaurant along the shoreline that was later home to an incredibly popular British fish and seafood restaurant. (The plans were later accepted.) Cumming is a proponent of seaweed-based vegan caviar as a substitute (he provided the council with a small amount of the alternative in the protest).
Peta (People to Protect Animals and Human Rights) has been a vocal opposition to aquaculture farms insisting that fish live unhappy lives within “severely crowded tanks” in which the fish “have no option but to swim in endless circles.” The insufficiency and unnatural circumstances, Peta charges, make fish extremely vulnerable to aggression and stress.
Won, For her part, claims that her sturgeons would die if they weren’t given sufficient space. She’s also happy with the treatment they receive. “Americans cultivate everything else. We farm cattle, pigs, and chickens. Why do we take sea fish when we could be farming those, too?”