Doe farmed caviar have a place at the table? In the changing food world, where the Caspian Sea has experienced overfishing, pollution, and poaching, it’s time to think about new sources of caviar for a growing audience. Long-term caviar production problems led to the near extinction of the Russian sturgeon used to produce the desirable beluga, sevruga, and osteria caviar. As a result, there’s been a ban on imports.
While figures for total caviar production are not reliable, the global market is estimated to be as much as $100 million. With the lack of international supply, coupled by a desire for more locavore dining options, aquaculture farming of sturgeon has taken a foothold. And analysts predict this trend is here to stay, suggesting that eventually farmed caviar will replace the wild variety due to shortages.
Caviar fish farming proliferates
Today, farms that raise the sturgeon that produce caviar are taking hold around the world. In Italy, Agrolittica Lombardi, which began in 1991, today produces more than 20 tons of caviar annually. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Emirates AquaTech, which began in November 2013, plans to produce 35 tons a year. The largest caviar farm production belongs to Value Farm, which is based in China, and is so large it could one day dominate the marketplace.
In the United States, Sterling Caviar (which is part of Norwegian maritime business) is currently operating in Elverta, California, located in the Sacramento Valley. Sterling, which has been in operation for 30 years now, has $10 million in annual revenues and produces nearly 12 tons of farmed caviar a year. It has plans not only to expand its US operations, but to move into Spain and Iceland as well.
But how does it taste?
While purists may turn their noses up at American caviar (much as they did with California wines some time ago), it has gained a following, even among world renowned chefs like Thomas Keller (of the famed French Laundry). Critics describe the farmed version as “firmer, less salty, and not as fishy” as wild caviar, but it is gaining ground on local menus, especially in Californian restaurants, where it is better known.
Today, Sterling produces 60 percent of American caviar, and with farmed caviar, price is dropping (one bonus for the consumer). What used to be a $6,000/kilo product only five years ago has now been cut in half to $3,000. American caviar is also gaining a foothold in foreign markets, with expanding sales to Europe and Japan. Sterling is so successful in its production of American caviar, it expects to become a $15 million company in less than five years.
Of course, the real proof of its staying power will be tested when (and if) the ban on Caspian Sea caviar is lifted. Says Sterling’s director, “People need to get over that fantasy.”