January 27, 2013

California pearls

Turns out the Golden State accounts for the vast majority of the U.S. sturgeon and caviar production.

By MARC LIFSHER Los Angeles Times

(Continued from page 1)

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California caviar comes in many names, some with very Russian-sounding ones such as Tsar Nicoulai, Tsar Imperial or Malossol. Some names even have local flavor such as Petrossian's Special Reserve Alverta, referring to eggs from Sterling's farm.

Having a source just a six-hour drive away makes for tastier dishes, said Ashley James, executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.

"It's a wonderful thing to buy local whenever you can," James said. "Not only does it benefit the environment, but the caviar retains freshness, which plays into its integrity and flavor."

Caviar is served in many ways, most often as an appetizer. It's customarily accompanied with plain or buttered corners of toasted, thinly sliced white bread or Russian-style buckwheat pancakes called blini, along with a dollop of creme fraiche or sour cream.

Eating tiny fish eggs isn't for everyone. But for some diners, it's a must-have luxury. Retail prices on the Internet for Northern California caviar range from $62 to $88 for a 1-ounce jar.

Aficionados say they crave caviar's distinctive flavor, the round shape and a texture that literally explodes on the roof of the mouth. It comes in a range of colors including gray, light green, brown, gold and inky black. Caviar, experts stress, is generally considered the eggs of the sturgeon, although sometimes confused with caviar-like delicacies such as the eggs, or roe, of the salmon.

Northern California's premium caviar adds a flourish to many dishes served at Fleur de Lys French restaurant in San Francisco, said owner and chef Hubert Keller. "We use it regularly. When we have a little sole, we put a spoon of caviar on the top," he said. "Caviar is the ultimate indulgence."

Currently, the bulk of the national harvest is shipped from Elverta by Sterling Caviar. A second local caviar producer, Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, is a boutique operation just south of Sacramento. It supplies many top-rated epicurean shops and restaurants.

This year Sterling, the California unit of multinational Stolt-Nielsen Ltd., produced about 22,000 pounds of caviar and 67,500 pounds of sturgeon meat, a byproduct. The company plans to boost caviar output by 50 percent over the next three years.

But it's a tough business, said Enrique Castano, Sterling's managing director in Elverta.

"We spend as much on electricity as a small city in the United States," he said. "People think that because caviar is expensive that raising sturgeon to produce caviar is very profitable," said Castano. Not so, he said: "The per-kilogram cost of caviar is very, very high."


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