Maybe you hadn’t heard, but Russian caviar is all but a thing of the past. The Caspian Sea has been overfished, and even Petrossian, the famed caviar brand based in New York, L.A., and Paris, now sources all of its caviar from sustainably farmed sources here and abroad, with some of their highest-priced tins coming from California. As The Wall Street Journal reports today, some of the country’s best restaurants, including the French Laundry and Jean Georges, have embraced the domestic farmed stuff, but is it really as good? And isn’t there still some kind of black market for the bad-but-so-good, wild, unsustainable stuff?
"I haven’t seen any reputable distributors with wild caviar in quite a while," says Michel Emery, the sales director at Petrossian whom Grub Street contacted after he was quoted in the Journal piece. "I haven’t had any Ossetra or Sevruga since January 2010. And Beluga’s been illegal here since 2005."
Petrossian now sells 100 percent sustainably farmed caviar that they source from Florida, California, and multiple international farms. One of their most expensive caviars, the Petrossian Special Reserve Alverta (which will run you about $200 per ounce), comes from Sterling Caviar, which is based in Sacramento. The caviar industry got a ten-year head start on the Sacramento River, thanks to the help of a Russian emigrée 30 years ago who taught at U.C. Davis. Now farmed sturgeon produce salable eggs in half the time that wild fish do.
But if it’s all farmed now, shouldn’t it be cheaper than it used to be? We were curious about the source of what Petrossian now sells as their Special Reserve Ossetra, which starts at $1,523 for four ounces. Emery explained that it is still farmed, and it could come from anywhere, generally a farm in Bulgaria, Israel, China, or elsewhere, and the tin will be labeled as such. Petrossian tests all the caviar they get in and regrades it based on their own standards before reselling it. "The quality can change the longer it’s in the tin," says Emery. "And sometimes we find something truly extraordinary, and we set that aside as Special Reserve."
It seems the industry has continued to find ways to brand something as exclusive and luxury, despite not necessarily having access to the original delicacy. Deborah Keane, CEO of California Caviar Company, says, "Sometimes you see these beautiful tiger-eye colors in the egg, and they might just come from one fish out of a hundred, and that caviar will get a different price point."
Domestic and farmed caviars are subject to the same quality criteria as the wild Caspian Sea stuff you can’t get anymore — the largest beads with the prettiest color and best quality "pop" are the most prized — but some chefs are still purists when it comes to flavor. Corey Lee at Benu in San Francisco insists that the farm-raised stuff doesn’t compare. "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." (For the record, Timothy Hollingsworth, who took Lee’s place as chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, is a big fan of the farmed stuff.)
Emery says that while farmed caviar might be milder in flavor, he doubts that most people who aren’t four-star chefs can really tell the difference.
Keane, whose company also sells wild caviar from the Mississippi River harvested from fish that are distant cousins of the sturgeon, feels like the debate is exactly like the debates about "old dirt" vs. "new dirt" that the California wine industry faced in being compared to France in the seventies. "Farmed vs. domestic, new dirt vs. old dirt, it’s the same thing," she says. "Sturgeon farming is really similar to wine growing. It’s a labor of love, and it takes seven years to produce these eggs. And as the industry continues to grow, you’re going to see more availability, and that leads to acceptability." Also, she adds, caviar’s only going to get more affordable as time goes on.
She also sticks by the fact that even the best chefs can be stumped if they’re given a blind tasting between wild and farmed caviar that’s been properly aged, for at least four months — even though the wild stuff in question has to come from domestic waters. "I’m going to do a blind tasting with Corey Lee and then see what he says," Keane tells us. Um, can we get an invite to that tasting, too? For, you know, purely journalistic purposes.