California may not possess the ancient romance inherent in a name like The Caspian nor the deep, dank mystery of The Black Sea, but it does have one thing the others are seeing a lot less of these days: caviar. Today, the L.A. Times cites Sacramento as the nation’s leading producer of the delicacy, mostly due to pollution, poaching, and over-fishing in its traditional epicenters. Alexander Petrossian, of the famous Parisian caviar-empire, tells the paper, “Wild caviar is gone, and we can all forget about it.” Instead, farm-raised sturgeon are the next front in precious fish eggs, with the sturdy, strange fish being raised by the thousands by cultivators like Sterling Caviar in the tiny town of Elverta.
Sacramento became an unlikely hub of caviar production in the late seventies, when a defector and fish biology expert from the Soviet Union took a job at U.C. Davis and was soon approached by a group of NorCal farmers seeking to set up their own sturgeon hatcheries. Fortuitously, the Sacramento River provided a population of wild sturgeon to create a successful breeding ground in the mid-eighties, with the first harvest of caviar arriving in 1994.
Of course, California’s chefs, ever loco-for-locavorism, love having a nearby source for the sturgeon. Back in August, Grub Street encountered San Francisco chef Boris Portnoy exposing the farm-raised fish to his bike-bound tandoor for sturgeon shashlik. Hubert Keller tells The Times, “We use it regularly.” And Ashley James, of the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, is excited about having a source just six hours away, saying, “Not only does it benefit the environment, but the caviar retains freshness, which plays into its integrity and flavor.”
Of course, though production is way up in California, it doesn’t mean the prices have fallen quite to the point where you can liberally spread the stuff on your breakfast toast like one might in Azerbaijan. Sterling’s Enrique Castaño points to the high-cost of farm-raising sturgeon when he says, “We spend as much on electricity as a small city in the United States…The per-kilogram cost of caviar is very, very high.”