Deviled eggs with dill and caviar from Nightingale restaurant, owned by husband and wife Carrie McCabe-Johnston and Jasha Johnston and photographed Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, in Minneapolis, MN.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Forget Russia: California emerges as major caviar producer

  • Article by: MARC LIFSHER
  • Los Angeles Times
  • January 26, 2013 - 5:26 PM

With your flute of French Champagne this weekend, how about a little caviar on toast from California?

To the surprise of many would-be gourmands, the halcyon days of caviar are over. Most of the world's production no longer comes from such exotic spots as Russia's Volga River and western Asia's Caspian Sea. Those supplies are almost completely depleted from pollution, poaching and overfishing of the caviar-egg-bearing sturgeon.

Instead, Sacramento County, Calif., has emerged as the epicenter of U.S. sturgeon and caviar production, and experts say California now accounts for 70 to 80 percent of U.S. production.

"Wild caviar is gone," said Alexandre Petrossian, sales director and grandson of the founder of the 92-year-old French company that bears the family's name, known worldwide for premium caviar. Farm-raised sturgeon and their eggs are "the next generation of caviar," he said.

And to see where these fish eggs are being harvested, drive just 20 miles north of California's Capitol building to the scruffy, rice-growing community of Elverta (pop. 5,492). Although caviar isn't on any local menu, it's available at up to $2,757 per kilogram -- 2.2 pounds -- for a bon vivant risking the drive on a narrow, levee-top road to Sterling Caviar, a nondescript fish farm.

Sterling raises thousands of the prehistoric-looking fish that have barely evolved in the last quarter-of-a-billion years. The toothless bottom-feeders have shark-like, scaleless skin and four feelers protruding from their mouths.

Segregated by age, sturgeon circle and splash in more than a dozen 70,000-gallon tanks. Each holds more than 1,000 fish and is sheltered in hangar-like buildings.

The demise of Caspian caviar may be well known among dedicated connoisseurs but can be shocking news to the uninitiated, said Petrossian, who operates out of New York. His family's Paris company is a major player in the caviar trade, operating restaurants and gourmet shops in West Hollywood, New York, Las Vegas, Dubai and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

"They might ask for the famous Beluga that we haven't sold in six or seven years. But we tell people to choose another one they prefer," he said. "Most of the time people tend to take the American caviar because it's not too salty, not too fishy, looks presentable and has larger, firm eggs."

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.

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.

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