Dinosaur in the Delta: Farmers tame prehistoric fish to make food fit for a king
Fish stories. We've all heard them and, more often than not, we suspect the facts may have been "slightly altered."
Tales about gigantic sturgeon as an increasingly important California farming commodity, however, may not necessarily be fishy. This freshwater fish can grow to the size of a small whale and has become the source of a burgeoning caviar industry in the Sacramento River Delta region.
"When I reflect on the most surprising thing that has transpired, it's our acceptance," said Peter Struffenegger, manager of Stolt Sea Farm near Sacramento and packager of Sterling Caviar. "There seemed to be no chance that we would be able to achieve the same quality as that of the wild product from the Caspian Sea. That mind set has changed over the last six to seven years. We're now in vogue and in demand. It's a complete reversal."
The popularity of Sterling Caviar is on the rise, with customers ranging from New York's upscale restaurants to first-class passengers on Singapore Airlines.
Twenty years ago, Struffenegger began Stolt Sea Farm, where all steps of production—from spawning a new generation of fish to packaging and shipping tins of caviar—are handled at various in-house sites.
Now Stolt has an inventory of tens of thousands of sturgeon that is kept in concrete and fiberglass tanks. The fish are fed a high-protein, balanced diet that is administered via automatic feeders. Water quality is a critical component of success. Millions of gallons of water are continually monitored to keep the fish at peak health, which translates into a quality product.
"Stolt Sea Farm is a sustainable operation," said Struffenegger. "When people try our product, they can be assured that they're getting an environmentally safe product that is regulated and controlled by FDA standards. That can't be said about most of the other caviars out there."
Struffenegger said that Stolt's sustainable farming approach and the quality of caviar produced should add to its customer base in the future. The farm also markets sturgeon meat, which chefs say has a mild flavor like halibut but a density similar to beef. Stolt also has developed several derivative meat products, including smoked sturgeon and two types of sturgeon sausage—Cajun and lemon-pepper.
"Sturgeon are grown for eight to 10 years, and there is a very short window of opportunity to harvest and process the caviar correctly," Struffenegger said. "If you harvest it too early, the egg hasn't fully matured and a caviar connoisseur will say the product isn't up to snuff. If you harvest it too late, it becomes too soft, too mushy."
Caviar is a premium product at a royal price. Sterling caviar is available in three grades—classic, royal and imperial—which range in price from $40 to $52 per ounce.
With the increasing prominence of Sterling caviar, you can be confident that if the subject of "California caviar" arises at an elegant party, it will be more than just a fish story.
(Jim Morris is a reporter for Ag Alert. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.