Thursday, May 12, 2011

Galt's Caviar

The city of Galt in southern Sacramento County is emerging as the center of caviar production in the United States.

What a wonderful story of local entrepreneurism, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

An excerpt.

“On a breezy April afternoon in the grassy delta flatlands of Galt, Calif., fins and tails were churning the waters inside raised tanks the size of above-ground swimming pools.

“The bellies of the 100-pound, six-foot-long sturgeon of the Fishery aquaculture farm were white, their vacuum cleaner-nozzle mouths toothless and slightly be-whiskered. The fish have shark-like skin. Down their wide flanks run reptilian spikes, called "scutes," ancient prototypes of fish scales. They are brutal in appearance, ugly even, living fossils from a prehistoric evolutionary crossroads.

“Sturgeon—Acipenseridae—have outlived whatever killed the dinosaurs. They've survived everything in the past 250 million years, only now to fall prey to man's desire for their clusters of glistening roe. Their eggs sell for as much as $270 per ounce in gourmet shops world-wide, and garnish the $50 entrees of white-tablecloth plates everywhere.

“Caviar—the other black gold—sublimely salty, sweet, earthy, an acquired taste, to be sure, and pleasant to the eye, has been a delicacy of khans, tsars, monarchs and aristocracy for millennia. But in the past decade the market for wild sturgeon caviar—the crème de la crème of the delicacy—has been wracked by poachers, smugglers, polluted waters and the threat of extinction for the most prized of the world's 27 sturgeon species, those producing wild beluga caviar.

“Besides protecting endangered sturgeon, import bans on Caspian Sea caviar have another upside. They created an opportunity for a group of entrepreneurial biologists and fish farmers in California's Central Valley region, where cattle ranches have given way to sturgeon farms. Now domestic roe farmers have birthed a sustainable caviar industry, winning over, however reticently, the collective palate of the haute-cuisine stratosphere. And greenmarket grocery chains such as Whole Foods Market have dropped Caspian Sea caviar mainstays for the sustainable domestic brands.

"Caviar plays an extremely important role in my cuisine," said Timothy Hollingsworth, the chef de cuisine at Napa Valley's three-Michelin-star French Laundry. "Russian caviar is, unfortunately, pretty much obsolete. So having an alternative that is local, and sustainable, is simply…great."

“Corey Lee, the James Beard Award-winning chef at San Francisco's Benu restaurant, has mixed feelings about the California product. "I've tried most of them, and there's some good ones out there, but they can't be compared to the wild caviar," he said. "I realized years ago that I have to view farmed caviar as a new ingredient, with its own measures of quality, and not as a substitute for the wild."

“Mr. Lee conceded, however, that farmed caviar will only continue to get better as the industry becomes more competitive and knowledgeable. "I do think that the farmed caviar is the future," he said.”