The Incredible Edible Eggs

Photos by Max Whittaker

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What are superstar chefs like Thomas Keller and Charlie Palmer doing out in the middle of a big, dry field a few miles north of Arco Arena? Fishing. In the wake of global bans on wild caviar, one unassuming  local fish farm is basking in the worldwide culinary spotlight.

 

 

FFifteen miles north of the State Capitol, on a parched square of land that feels closer to the 
middle of nowhere than to downtown Sacramento, stands the nation’s caviar capital. There is no sign proclaiming its unofficial title, no pyramid sculpture of giant black-steel fish eggs or greeters wearing plastic fins who spastically wave down passersby. Not that many passersby venture out this way, down a narrow levee road that crosses into Elverta and skirts a pair of long white metal warehouses that, to guess from the outside, might house chickens, hogs or spare tractor parts.

Only after entering the dimly lit buildings on the dusty farm grounds of Sterling Caviar will a visitor learn that what grows here ranks among the planet’s most prized food commodities. Hundreds of thousands of white sturgeon—the smallest the size of a pack of gum, the largest as long as a baseball bat—swim in ceaseless circles in dozens of heated water tanks. Endangered in the wild and largely protected from commercial fishing, the white sturgeon inhabits the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and waters along much of the West Coast. The fish bred and raised on Sterling’s farm, by contrast, will never know the sea. But the precious eggs harvested from the females in its stock will travel around the world, gracing the plates and seducing the palates of guests at premier restaurants from Paris, Frankfurt and Brussels to New York, San Francisco and Sacramento.
Fish processor Ray -- sturgeon at Sterling Caviar’s Elverta fish farm.

The company produces 25,000 pounds of caviar a year, making it the country’s largest supplier of the farm-raised variety of the delicacy and among the top three worldwide. Some 70 percent of its annual caviar sales occur between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when industry revenues spike as consumers indulge their champagne wishes and caviar dreams. Despite the lingering national recession, officials with Sterling and Petrossian Inc., the international fine foods vendor that distributes Sterling Caviar, expect a robust holiday season, their confidence buoyed in part by a glittering client list crowned by Thomas Keller. The celebrated chef serves the brand at his fabled Yountville restaurants, The French Laundry and Bouchon, as well as at Per Se, his three-Michelin-star eatery in New York, and his other Bouchon locations in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. “We like it for a reason—it’s a consistently high quality caviar,” says Philip Tessier, the chef de cuisine at Bouchon in Yountville.

Sterling Caviar also dresses up the menu at the eponymous restaurants of such kitchen luminaries as Michel Rostang in Paris, Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York and Michael Mina in San Francisco. Closer to home, Café Americain, a champagne and caviar bar set to debut in mid December in Old Sacramento, will feature Sterling caviar (and grilled sturgeon). Over on Del Paso Boulevard, the upscale Supper Club garnishes assorted seafood dishes and its Yukon Gold potato blinis with Sterling. In October, Matt and Yvette Woolston, the husband and wife team behind the Supper Club, opened their second restaurant, Matteo’s Pizza & Bistro in Carmichael; one of its offerings, the Millionaires Pizza, boasts toppings of the caviar, thin-sliced lobster and smoked salmon. “I’ve tasted Sterling along with some of the best [wild] caviars in the world,” Matt Woolston says, “and I prefer Sterling to caviars that cost three times the amount. The flavor is so well-balanced. A lot of caviars are a little too fishy or a little too salty.”

The hosannas from chefs echo the praise of The New York Times, Forbes, Wine Spectator and numerous other publications that tout Sterling Caviar, a chorus parroted by high-end food merchants. The company’s distinctive royal blue tins line the shelves of the Simon Johnson grocery chain in Australia, Zabar’s in New York and, in Sacramento, The Market at Pavilions (the rechristened gourmet store previously owned by David Berkley) and Corti Bros. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Darrell Corti, an international food and wine expert, “Sterling is probably the best farm-raised caviar made in the world.” As much as its rich flavor, Corti likes the caviar for another reason: “It’s available year-round.”

The endangered status of beluga, osetra and sevruga sturgeon, whose collective population has suffered from overfishing in the Caspian and Black seas, has led to global and U.S. import bans on wild caviar. The embargo and rising public demand for sustainable farming, coupled with the more affordable cost of farm-raised fish eggs, have boosted Sterling’s fortunes since it first began selling caviar in 1994, more than a decade after its founding. A pioneer in an industry that has matured as slowly as white sturgeon in the sea, the company has endured a long, sometimes choppy voyage toward worldwide success. But unlikely as it may sound, this is one fish story that’s actually true.

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Peter Struffenegger drops a fistful of fish food into a 3,000-gallon water tank where upward of 5,000 small gray shapes swirl in tight, head-to-tail formation. A few of the 5-month-old sturgeons rise to suck in a pellet, tiny whiskers breaking the water’s surface, but most wait until the food settles on the tank’s floor.

“They’re bottom feeders,” says Struffenegger, Sterling Caviar’s manager, peering down at fish that range in length from less than 2 inches to half a foot and weigh less than a pound. “That’s where they like to find their food.”

But unlike wild sturgeon, forced to scavenge along the sea floor for mollusks, worms, clams, small fish and similar fare that will pass through their suction-like mouth, the farm-bred stock receive a steady supply of fish food high in proteins and fats to aid their health. Held in plastic feeders suspended above the tank, the pellets plunk into water that hovers around 70 degrees. The warm temperature speeds the sturgeon’s maturation time by, in effect, fooling the fish into thinking summer never ends. In the sea, its growth slows when water temperature drops during winter; as a result, females are typically 15 to 20 years old when they first produce eggs. Sterling’s fish reach that stage at 7 to 10 years old, a triumph of nurture over nature.