Minnesota locavores might consider a new delicacy for their holiday appetizer platters this year: caviar from Lake Superior.
Lake herring has long been a staple on North Shore dinner plates, usually fried up for fish and chips, fish burgers or fish cakes. But herring is hardly just another fish to fry. The roe sacs of these slender, silver fish hold rosy orange eggs which, when salted, become the Swedish delicacy known as löjrom, or herring caviar. The delicately textured roe may be the most local and economical caviar you've never tasted.
During the late autumn herring spawn, Dockside Fish Market, on the shores of Lake Superior in Grand Marais, processes about 60,000 pounds of herring roe into caviar. Most of that caviar is enjoyed beyond U.S. borders, with the vast majority of it exported to Scandinavian countries, where löjrom has long been a favorite.
Shele and Harley Toftey own Dockside Fish Market, and began processing the roe in 2003 when Stoller Fisheries (now Interlaken Fisheries) of Spirit Lake, Iowa, contacted them. Depleted Scandinavian fisheries had created an export market for the herring caviar. Since then, from November into early December, the Tofteys lease their buildings to Interlaken and assist with the herring processing, along with 40 other employees.
The process works like this: First, the roe goes through both vibration and washing systems. Next, mounds of roe are spread onto large trays so Shele and her employees can pick out any impurities by hand. Finally, the roe hangs in bags in a cool, dry area overnight before being salted and shipped to Interlaken Fisheries in Iowa, which manages the exports. Much of the caviar goes to Scandinavian cruise ship lines, Shele said.
Although the Scandinavian fisheries are recovering now, enough Swedes still enjoy the Lake Superior caviar to create demand. While the Lake Superior caviar is a comparable substitute for Swedish löjrom, it's no carbon copy. Scandinavian herring and what Minnesotans refer to as lake herring are actually two different species. Minnesota caviar has a milder flavor than traditional Swedish löjrom.
A mistaken identity
Confusion about the two fish may have begun when Scandinavian fishermen on Lake Superior dubbed the fish they found in their nets "herring" because of its similar appearance to the Scandinavian fish. The one Minnesotans know as lake herring is actually a cisco, which is sometimes called a tullibee, said Ted Halpern of Lake Superior Area Fisheries in the state Department of Natural Resources.
With Lake Superior herring caviar being exported to compensate for depleted Scandinavian fisheries, will Lake Superior's fisheries become overfished?
No, says Halpern. Although there was a sharp decline in Lake Superior's herring population in the early 1970s, which lasted through the mid-'80s, its herring population is now strong.
The caviar will continue to be a sustainable indulgence because of limits on the state's commercial fisherman licenses for Lake Superior's North Shore, as well as quotas, including one on roe harvest.
At Dockside Fish Market, the caviar is frozen and available year-round, although the Superior Gold Caviar and Lake Superior Bluefin Caviar are mainly a seasonal treat.
"It doesn't last much longer than the holiday season," said Jahn Brink of Coastal Seafoods in Minneapolis, where Lake Superior herring caviar is available as long as their shipments from the November spawn last.
A salty flavor
Brink compares the herring caviar to salmon caviar, but with smaller eggs.
"It's milder and it doesn't have a fishy taste as much as it has a salty taste," said Shele Toftey.
Brink agrees that herring caviar has a definite brininess. Because of that salty flavor, the caviar makes an excellent topping for baked potatoes. In Sweden, the caviar is often paired with baked potato wedges.
Brink suggests placing a dollop of the caviar atop an oyster and slurping them together. He also likes it atop cucumber slices with some crème fraîche and fresh dill.
Toftey suggests using it on deviled eggs or on a crisp cracker with sour cream and minced red onions.
Whatever the choice, this caviar from Minnesota's inland ocean is versatile enough to be used as you would any premier roe.
Ada Igoe is a freelance writer who lives on the Gunflint Trail, outside Grand Marais. Reach her at email@example.com.