I’ve consumed a fair amount of caviar in my day — “fair amount” being, by definition, never quite enough. And I’ve consumed it in all the usual locations — London, Paris, New York — as well as in some uncommon places, once long ago in a Russian restaurant in Tehran, and several times on the right bank of the Heilongjiang River, aka the Amur, which separates northern China from southern Siberia. There, caviar was served for breakfast, notably with Nabisco crème-filled wafers and lots of Chinese tea to go with it. Unforgettable!
But I have not had a fair amount of caviar since the production of caviar from Caspian and Amur River sturgeon came under the exacting regulation of the CITES international convention to protect endangered species. Sturgeon qualify as endangered, but many environmental organizations say CITES doesn’t do anywhere near enough to protect this big fish, one of the most ancient species on the planet. The Pew Institute for Ocean Science, for instance, recommends that conscientious consumers refuse any wild-caught caviar, one of the most expensive of luxury items, even when they can afford it.
Certified organic caviar
As a conscientious consumer, I leaped at the opportunity to visit Rio Frio, a village in the mountains west of Granada, Spain, and the Piscifactoria de Sierra Nevada (Sierra Nevada Fish Factory) to see how caviar and sturgeon are produced with sustainable, certified organic methods. I traveled as part of a team from the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in the Napa Valley which is making a documentary about the gastronomy of Andalucia, Spain’s broad southern region. In Rio Frio, I thought, there will surely be a fair amount of caviar. I was not wrong.
Rio Frio caviar, sold in the U.S. under the label Almas Ara ($95 per 30 grams) and in the U.K. and elsewhere as Per Se (about $105 per ounce), is everything caviar should be: rich, warm (not in temperature, for heaven’s sake, in flavor), full-bodied and delicate. Similar to osetra, it is medium grain, firm in texture and a dazzling deep opalescent jet to shimmering gray-green. “Take a spoonful,” said Sergio Casares, export manager of the Rio Frio farm who was showing us around. He extended a bone caviar spoon with glistening black sturgeon eggs. “Just hold it in your mouth for a minute to warm it,” he advised. “Then gently press up with your tongue.”
Under pressure, the round smooth eggs seemed to melt away, not with a burst but rather with a rolling wave of flavor that flooded my taste buds, not really fishy, not really salty, but with a suggestion of both, a flavor that was haunting, evocative and direct at the same time, past and present fused into one: Tehran, the Amur River, and this moment captured right now.
Farms keep sturgeon from extinction
The caviar is from Acipenser naccarii, Adriatic sturgeon, once common to the rivers that empty into that arm of the Mediterranean but now nearly extinct — except at Rio Frio where the largest population of this ancient fish (sturgeon are thought to go back at least 250 million years) is being sustainably recovered and protected.
Aquaculture is a dirty word for a lot of people, but I’m convinced that if we are to go on consuming seafood of any kind, we must farm fish properly and support those, like the fish farmers of Rio Frio, who are doing it right as they reap a remarkable 4.5 tons of caviar annually.
Sturgeon for caviar can be produced by non-organic, non-sustainable methods, using warm water, liquid oxygen and hormones: in five years, the fish will be ready to yield caviar. But at Rio Frio, it takes 15 years to raise a sturgeon. Along with trout, the fish bask in tranquil natural pools formed by the river’s cold, clear spring water. There are 70,000 sturgeon here, and every 25 kilos of fish benefit from a thousand liters of water. The farm also produces organic feed for the sturgeon, Artemia salina, a tiny brine shrimp (if your kids ever grew “sea monkeys,” you know what they are), as well as dry feed made from the residue of sturgeon slaughter. Once the fish reach breeding age, at about 9 or 10, males are culled (their flesh, whether fresh or smoked, is prized by Andalucian chefs and gourmets), and the females are left undisturbed to develop roe.
Caviar comes from virgins
Caviar, the unfertilized roe of a mature fish, comes from a virgin sturgeon who weighs in the neighborhood of 90 pounds by the time it’s 15 years old. If the roe is not harvested at that point, it is reabsorbed and turns to fat. Then the fish is left to produce roe a second time, of even better quality. “We produce a luxury product,” Casares told me later over lunch, “but basically we’re just farmers. We farm fish.”
Wearing surgical masks and cloaked head-to-ankle in seamless white plastic, our feet encased in blue plastic booties, we entered the icy room where Rio Frio caviar is made. We had been warned not to touch a thing; even the video camera microphones were covered with plastic wrapping to protect the premises against contamination. Similarly clad workers hustled around us as a 35-kilo (nearly 80- pound) sturgeon, that had been quickly and efficiently slaughtered and cleanly bled on the dock outside, was processed. The procedure was simple: One worker slit the belly of the fish then pulled apart the two sides, another lifted out the huge black roe sac. “Note that she doesn’t touch the fish itself,” explained Casares. “She just inserts her hands and lifts.” This keeps the roe in pristine condition
Once weighed — the roe should be about 10 percent of the fish’s weight; in this case, it was spot on at 8 pounds — the roe was simply salted, packed in containers and stored, stacked in neat rows, in an aging room. The tins are turned weekly to redistribute salt and ensure that it matures evenly before it is sent around the world for sale.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Top photo: Sustainable caviar from Spain’s Rio Frio.
Photo and slide show credits: Nancy Harmon Jenkins