What it takes to get caviar to your plate

Jacob Richler on some very, very good eggs

Matsutake quiche, pie crumb, Swiss chard, Northern Divine caviar by Momofuku Sh?t?. Photo by Maya Visnyei.

To put matters in perspective: just six weeks after it hatches, a naturally raised chicken is already plump enough for the deep fryer. Spring lambs generally check out at the same tender age, pigs seldom make it to 10 months, and steers are usually converted into rib-eyes before the age of two. But it takes a farmer of nearly indomitable patience to raise sturgeon that—even at their friskiest—will not be rushed into producing caviar until they are six or seven years old.

And they were not so lucky as that at Target Marine Hatcheries in Sechelt, on the Sunshine Coast of B.C. Not nearly. The ultrasound showed nothing going on in the ovaries of their seven-year-old sturgeons. No action, either, when they were eight, or nine—at which point concern was evolving to panic. “As long as the fish kept growing, we thought we were okay, but there were some concerns that we had sterile fish,” admits Justin Henry, general manager at Target Marine. “We changed a bunch of things—photo period [exposure to sunlight], environment, feed.”

Feed is an interesting issue: sturgeon apparently taste what they put in their mouths and spit out what they dislike. And if you think your toddler is impressively recalcitrant at this game, note that a sturgeon can survive without food for two years; the female can even reabsorb her own eggs as nutrition (which, needless to say, would be a frightful waste of caviar). Target Marine devised a mixture of dried herring and grain that keeps its sturgeon happy and plump. When combined with the inland operation’s capacity for filtering and recycling its own gravity-fed water, among other environmentally sound habits, it also allowed the farm to acquire organic certification. (It is the only caviar farm thus classified in North America.)

Finally, somewhere between the ages of 11 and 13, the mother sturgeons were ready to spawn. Alas, when a sturgeon does that, it coats its eggs with a layer of protective goo that is great for sticking them safely in place on the riverbed but tastes foul on a blini. Regrettably for the sturgeon, caviar must—like, say, Macduff—be from its mother’s womb untimely ripped. The exact right moment is determined by a combination of ultrasound and the harmless extraction of a few sample eggs. And then it’s curtains for mum.

She will then weigh around 135 kg. None of it is wasted. Sturgeon heads are sold at T&T Supermarkets, where Asians snap them up for soup. The spinal marrow is dried and turned into vesiga, a nearly forgotten delicacy that famously was shaved as garnish over the consommé Olga served as the second course of the last meal on the Titanic. The swim bladder is used to make isinglass for wine and beer. And at least one Chinese chef in Vancouver is experimenting with drying cartilaginous sturgeon fins to see if they might work as a substitute for those of the shark.

The flesh, meanwhile, is delicious—as firm and meaty as monkfish, with a much higher fat content. Then there are the three to five kilograms of eggs, which—after being rinsed, checked over by hand with tweezers, sorted into grades (with broken eggs removed), lightly salted, tinned and briefly matured— are finally ready to be enjoyed as caviar.

“I love it, I just love it,” Henry said, of the glorious product. “As soon as I see it, I start to evaluate. What’s the texture in the tin? How does it sit in the spoon? What are the aromas? Then you put it in your mouth. Let it sit on the tongue. Let it warm up, and release its saltiness and flavour.”

A few friends and I tried a slightly accelerated version of that routine at my house last week with Target Marine’s Northern Divine, which we compared to a couple of others I happily had on hand (some German-farmed oscietra sourced from Caviar House, in the U.K., and wild Ontario caviar from Caviar Direct, in Toronto). The Ontario product was pleasingly bracing and salty, but mushy. The oscietra had the most robust texture of individual egg. But Target Marine’s caviar was extremely close behind, with a slight greenish hue to its back eggs, and a lovely, clean flavour that banished all bad memories of the muddy qualities of early caviar aquaculture. You could even say it’s worth waiting for.

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