Farming Caviar

From Moscow to the Delta in search of little fish eggs.

Story David Bolling
Photos Steven Krause

Moscow, 1989.

I am sitting in the back of a Lada, the Soviet-era “people’s car” about which one popular joke asked, “What’s the difference between a golf ball and a Lada?” The punch line: “You can drive a golf ball 200 meters.”

We are less than two blocks from the Kremlin, and the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral poke the sky behind us. In my hand I hold a fat roll of Russian rubles I have just received in exchange for three $100 bills.

The official and absurd exchange rate is one ruble to one dollar. That’s what you would get in a Soviet bank. The black market exchange rate, then transpiring in the back of that Lada, is 11 or 12 to one. I therefore have more rubles in my hand than the average Russian earns in a year. I am on my way to Siberia, I am briefly rich, and I have no idea how much currency I actually need. So I buy a lot.

But I am not yet out of the Lada, have not yet parted company with the money trader (who sits next to me, swathed in a cheap, black leather coat), his “cousin” the cab driver, and the “cousin’s” “uncle,” who sits shotgun.

They are friendly enough, although why three people are needed for such a simple transaction is unclear, and for the past 10 minutes, as we drive aimlessly around Red Square, I have been asking myself if I am going to leave the Lada alive, or at least minus my wallet.

We are now at the curb and as I raise the door handle to exit, the money trader puts his hand on my sleeve and says, “Wait. I must be showing you something.”

I am sure it will be a gun. It isn’t. It is a very big round tin, about the diameter of a coffee can and four or five inches high.

“You are liking caviar?” he asks. “Is beluga. Best caviar in world. From Caspian Sea. One kilo. You buy?”

There is nothing threatening in his voice, but the offer sounds like more than an invitation. I ask him how much. He says, “Five hundred rubles. You have plenty. Is cheap.”

I have tasted beluga, once, it is delicious. But I know nothing about the shelf life of caviar, and besides, I tell him, “I am going to Siberia.”

“Siberia,” he snorts, “nobody goes to Siberia. You want to buy nice fur coat?”

I escape into the April chill with my rubles and my life intact, but I can’t help wondering if I have just blown the caviar deal of a lifetime.

Later I learn that (a) unless it is pasteurized (a bad thing) caviar needs to be kept refrigerated, even when it’s in a sealed tin, so (b) it would have spoiled by the time I could eat it, even if it was, in fact, beluga. But, I also learn, a kilo of top-level beluga could have sold in London for something on the order of 10,000 to maybe 20,000 pounds sterling. And that’s how some Russians got rich. I wasn’t so lucky.

Wilton, California, 2017, 100 miles northeast of Sonoma, 20 miles south of Sacramento.

I am sitting in my own car this time, waiting for Otto Szilagyi to arrive, to begin another conversation about caviar. Otto is not going to sell me rubles, and he has no wild beluga because it’s no longer legal in the U.S. Over-fishing, pollution and river dams that block access to spawning grounds have radically depleted wild stocks, and the U.S. has periodically banned importation of beluga roe since 2005. But, as Otto soon shows me, he does have sturgeon by the tank load, and he’s not raising them as pets.

Otto is a partner and manager in Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, a 46-acre fish farm, production and processing facility, and an ingenious, closed-loop model of sustainable caviar production.

The fish in the tanks are, in fact, sturgeons, but they are not beluga, ossetra or sevruga—the triumvirate of classic, top-tier Russian or Iranian caviar-producing sturgeon, usually from the Caspian Sea. Otto’s fish are American white sturgeon, native to California, and state law prohibits the introduction of any fish species not indigenous to the state. Hence no farm-raised beluga, ossetra or sevruga, although growers in other states are beginning to raise them.

That doesn’t bother Otto, who says Tsar Nicoulai, with about 10,000 fish on-site, sells all the caviar and smoked sturgeon they can produce. They also sell thousands of heads of live lettuce, grown hydroponically in a greenhouse half the size of football field. The lettuce and the fish are strategically symbiotic, depending on the same filtered well water that circulates between fish tanks and the greenhouse, which can grow 80,000 heads at a time. With a seven-week growing period, the sturgeon lettuce can be turned over more than seven times a year—yielding an impressive annual crop of more than half a million heads of lettuce.

All of which is part of an evolving plan, says Otto, to become completely self-sufficient, with the introduction of solar panels, a fruit tree orchard and resident chickens, turkeys and goats. Plans also call to qualify both the fish and the lettuce as certified organic.

As it stands, the fish are free from hormones and antibiotics, there are no land-based animal products in their feed, and the only additive placed in the oxygenated water is some occasional salt.

“These guys are happy campers,” says Otto. “All day long they swim and eat.”

During the spawning season, faculty members from nearby UC Davis come to the facility to collaborate in the hatch, care and feeding of the sturgeon fry. “They want to help us with everything we do,” says Otto. “Now, more than ever, they are interested in promoting aquaponics.” Augmenting that support, Tsar Nicoulai also has a resident marine biologist. There are seldom serious problems.

“The sturgeon are a very, hearty, resilient fish,” says Otto, “as long as you give them good water and don’t overcrowd them—which is a mistake some people make.”

And he says, they grow at a prodigious rate.

“The growth rate is absolutely amazing in the first three years, then it slows down,” Otto explains. Two-year-old fish frequently reach 3 feet. When they’re ready for harvest, five or six years later, they’re up to 70-to-90 pounds, and a pregnant female will have 10 to 13 percent of her body weight in caviar.

Following traditional practice, the eggs are washed, sorted, lightly salted in a process called “malossol,” and packed in small glass jars ranging from one to four ounces.

Unlike classic beluga, which is offered online for roughly $2,000 a pound, you can taste Tsar Nicoulai for a lot less. Available at Sonoma Market, some Whole Foods stores, as well as at Sigh Bubble Lounge, EDK, Sonoma Mission Inn and numerous other restaurants and stores in the Valley (“We are in pretty much all the best places,” Otto immodestly explains.), one-ounce jars of the basic estate/signature caviar can be had for $40. On the other hand, at the other end of the price/quality spectrum, a one-ounce jar of Tsar Nicoulai’s Crown Jewel sells for $210.

It is, first and last, an extravagance; there’s no getting around that. But the slightly salty, light nutty taste of really good caviar is an easily acquired, evenly slightly addictive taste, that pairs beautifully with both Champagne and vodka, and can be eaten neat, or on a blini, a slice of boiled potato, any manner of cracker, or with crème fraîche.

What doesn’t become caviar by and large becomes smoked sturgeon steaks. Otto says the fish meat is sold as fast as it’s produced, and, he adds, almost every part of the fish is used—head and guts go for fertilizer—except for the skin, a use for which has not yet been found. Asked if would make good belt or boot material he acknowledged that could be an intriguing idea.

The fish itself is what ichthyologists like to refer to as a living fossil, a creature that has roamed the earth’s waters since the early Cretaceous period, some 130 million years ago. They are found in fresh and brackish water up and down the California coast, in San Francisco Bay and the Delta, and grow to lengths well over 15 feet. Several years ago, on a whitewater trip down Oregon’s Rogue River, I was paddling a 13-foot kayak and happened upon a snared sturgeon longer than my boat. Because sturgeon, unlike salmon, don’t die when they spawn, such fish can live longer than 100 years.

Following a tour of the Tsar Nicolai estate, Otto returned us to the facilities tasting room—inside a comfortable, renovated farmhouse—and there his wife, Daniella, had laid out a caviar feast.

There were platters of deviled eggs with caviar, blini with caviar, toast and caviar, smoked salmon and smoked sturgeon, and salmon caviar as well. The table was covered with caviar.

Otto and Daniella are Romanian by birth, an ethnic origin that apparently inculcates extraordinary levels of hospitality, at least where caviar is concerned.

On a return visit, during which we unsuccessfully attempted to photograph Otto casually holding a 3-foot sturgeon (the muscular candidate refused to relax, flopped out of Otto’s grip twice, and the resulting photo fell somewhat short of everyone’s expectations), we assured Otto we did not need to be feted. But we were. Again. With lavish, caviar-infused generosity.

We may not—and clearly, should not—have legal access to wild beluga, but it’s comforting to know that, when that delicate indulgence demands, Tsar Nicolai has all the American white sturgeon eggs the palate can require.

Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, 415. 543.3007,
tsarnicoulai.com.

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