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by Shira Levine
Those who love the taste of the ocean in the form of pickled fish eggs can finally indulge in the gourmet delicacy with a cleaner conscience, and without severely impacting the environment or the wallet. The pioneering development of domestic farm-raised sturgeon and the resulting increase of local caviar purveyors, balances out the supply/demand ratio of wild sturgeon. The result is a mercury-free, guilt-free farmed product, rich in superfood nutrients and sustainable practices.
“Caviar is considered the 'food of Kings,' not just because it is such a delicious indulgence, its also incredibly healthy,” says California Caviar Company, owner, Deborah Keane. “People don’t realize how many valuable ways science uses components of these eggs—Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, depression. There are caviar creams for beauty. It is also considered Nature’s Viagra.”
CCC is located in California’s Central Valley where the majority of U.S. caviar production happens, and where white sturgeon is native. Keane is just six years as a small business owner, but a veteran of the industry. She is the only female caviar company owner in the industry. The “Caviar Queen” grew frustrated by the fishy, Old World, and oft-corrupt practices of the Eastern Bloc-dominated industry. Using her own experiences working in various facets of the industry, and her keen palate for identifying high quality roe, Keane launched CCC with the goal to be as transparent as possible. Through her labeling she revealed exactly what she was packaging into her 1 ounce to 1 kilo jars. The idea was to give customers the education to better understand what they are spending hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars on. She didn’t like the blind trust of purchasing a product simply based on perception.
By labeling exactly what they are putting in their jars, CCC has forced generation-strong companies to change their ways and do the same, essentially demystifying precisely what lies within each crisp snap of roe.
“There aren’t a lot of regulated requirements enforce companies to tell you exactly what you’re buying,” says Keane. “Some jars may have high quality roe on top and something else beneath it. A jar could just say American caviar, but what does that even mean?”
Well, it can mean a number of things. Perhaps rather than sturgeon, it is hackleback, or, paddlefish from the Mississippi or Tennessee Rivers. They are distant relatives of the white sturgeon and also on the threatened species list. (Technically, only eggs from sturgeon can be called caviar.) If the roughly 24 species of wild sturgeon are illegal in the United States, it is pretty obvious consumers have little idea what they are spreading onto their crackers.
“You need to be an informed caviar consumer,” says Keane.
Here are CCC’s tips for what to look for when purchasing sustainable, trustworthy caviar.
1. Know where it’s from. The country of origin should be written on the label. Ostera isn’t enough. “You need to know if it’s Russian, Siberian, Iranian ostera,” says Keane. “Imported ostera tells you nothing.”
2. Know what kind of fish it is. The species of fish is important if determining whether you’re eating something endangered and illegal, or, simply phony.“Some people package dyed whitefish!” says Keane.
3. Check if it’s farmed or wild. Just because it’s illegal to produce wild caviar in the US and other countries doesn’t mean it’s not imported. (Illegal poaching occurs as well.) “I worked in the business when wild caviar was still legal and we’d always write whether it was wild or farmed,” says Keane. “It costs half as much to produce farmed caviar than wild.”
4. Brush up on your fish terminology. Purveyors are known to put words on the labels that actually don’t even matter. The word malossol frequently appears, but simply means, lightly salted. “All caviar is malossol,” says Keane. “Otherwise it hasn’t been cured.”
5. Look for a coded date on the jar. There should always be a used by or sell by date so the consumer knows how to eat it. “Caviar has a five week shelf life,” says Keane. “It should be perishable. You absolutely want to make sure there is no borax additive in your caviar.” Borax is a toxin used in French and the embargoed Iranian caviar. It’s illegal to use in production in the US.
6. Find a reliable source. CCC doesn’t package anything until it’s been ordered so the product remains fresh. Keane visits every farm she works with and observes their practices and procedures, tasting along the way as she creates trusting partnerships with her vendors. She suggests asking your local gourmet market various sourcing questions. “I didn’t trust anyone at first,” says Keane. “I want to be assured I am comfortable feeding my 7-year-old daughter the caviar. Now I have a community of people who I know will give me the absolute best because they know I know what I’m talking about and my palate can detect anything less than what I expect.”
7. Store your caviar properly. Caviar belongs in the coldest part of your refrigerator and with a packet of ice covering it. If throwing a party and having it shipped, caviar should arrive no more than two or three days before the event. If purchasing at a store, make sure the caviar is no where near produce and that the place it is being stored in is between 28 and 32 degrees. “Caviar is all oil so as it warms up, air and temperature affect its breathing process,” says Keane. “It’s like red wine. Caviar matures the moment you open it.” Since the pop on the palate is critical, it’s important to note that the longer caviar is left out, the softer it gets.
8. Taste it. CCC has their own tasting room where visitors can try their pressed lavender, bacon, and truffle infused caviars. Most places don’t get that fancy, but a good purveyor should be open to sampling. Caviar should taste creamy and nutty; not like the inside of a fish tank or like polluted waters. “The good thing about farmed caviar is that you control the flavors because you can process the best conditions,” says Keane.
Meanwhile, Keane is further helping to advance aquaculture sustainability. She is creating a process and product “that will change the caviar industry for the first time in 250 million years.” Her innovation plans to take CCC from being a sustainable green company that replaces what it takes from the environment, to a blue business where, “we won’t have to take at all from the environment to get the same results.”
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