September 11, 2015
When you think of caviar, what comes to mind? Probably gleaming tins of the finest Russian varieties, each brimming with their black gold, capable of selling for hundreds – or even thousands – per ounce. But for chefs and food lovers across the US, the focus is turning away from foreign and wild-fished stocks, as a blossoming domestic market sees caviar sourced more affordably and sustainably at home. And when it comes to the delicacy, few varieties are as in-demand as Sacramento caviar.
Sacramento – the farm-to-fork capital of the US, a fertile cornucopia that hosts 1.5 million acres of farmland – has also been a destination for its caviar for more than two decades, producing between 70-80% of the domestic supply. The primary producer in the area is Sterling Caviar, which has farmed wild sturgeon for more than 30 years and has harvested their caviar since 1993. Since then, its several grades of caviar have become the favourite of legions of chefs and diners.
In order to understand the new appetites for US-made caviar, it’s best to brush up on a bit of history. A delicacy once savoured by Eastern emperors and royalty, caviar made its way to Europe in the 19th century and soon picked up a loyal Western following. But that new appetite meant that the population of sturgeon fish – the only species whose roe can legally be called caviar – soon declined. Today, native sturgeon populations in the Caspian Sea (the source of many traditional, high-end Russian caviars) are critically endangered; as a result, wild-sourced caviar is nowadays virtually nonexistent, and the focus has turned towards products that are harvested using sustainable farming techniques.
It’s no small operation. Sturgeons are huge, ancient fish that can live to be 100 years old; their eggs aren’t typically harvested until the fish reach maturity – beginning at seven years old at the earliest. Sterling oversees the entire life cycles of its white sturgeon population, spawning their own eggs and raising the fish using an eco-friendly aquaculture system. The harvested eggs are then cleaned, mixed with high-quality salt, and packed in tins that correspond to each individual fish. Tins are aged for at least three months in order to fully develop their flavour.
In addition to Sterling, smaller Sacramento-aged producer Passmore Ranch, which sustainably farms numerous varieties of fish (including white sturgeon for its meat), has also lately produced a local caviar. Their product has quickly gained favour with top chefs in the region and beyond, especially as Michael Passmore, Passmore Ranch’s founder, works alongside many to craft bespoke batches of caviar.
Eager to sample the finest Sacramento caviar? A number of restaurants in Sacramento and elsewhere in Northern California feature the delicacy on their menus. Ella Dining Room & Bar recently hosted a tasting night with Sterling and also has Passmore Ranch’s caviar on-hand. Mulvaney’s, one of Sacramento’s most-esteemed farm-to-table restaurants, serves Passmore’s products on request. And Dawson’s Steakhouse, based in the Hyatt Regency Sacramento, also features Sterling caviar, serving it alongside their lobster mac n cheese.
Slightly farther afield, Sacramento caviar has also won approval from fine-dining stalwarts in the Bay Area and beyond. In San Francisco, Saison – one of the city’s most talked-about restaurants, where artful New American food is served in a tasting menu format – regularly features Sterling’s products. The caviar is also available in Thomas Keller’s world-class restaurants, including the iconic French Laundry in Yountville, Napa Valley.
It’s no surprise that farm-to-fork Sacramento is at the heart of this burgeoning domestic food industry, and it’s encouraging to see the locally sourced caviar making waves. It’s worth the splurge to do some sampling – just make sure you find a traditional mother-of-pearl spoon, first.
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Have you sampled Sterling’s products? What do you think of this exclusive Sacramento caviar? Let us know in the comments below.
Written by Claire Bullen