Black gold: can homegrown caviar catch on?

The chamber inside LaPaz Farm is so clean it almost feels like an operating room. Before we walked into the room, Sabine Mader, the manager of the farm, asks us to put on white coats, gloves and hair nets – and a beard net for my husband. Inside the chamber, a fish-cutter is waiting with a freshly dispatched, female Russian sturgeon on the table, one of five to be harvested today.

He deftly slices open the fish and pulls back the meat, revealing a wave of grey-black roe in the ovaries. It is the culinary equivalent of an old-fashioned coin purse slit down the middle with a treasure hidden inside. The treasure, in this case, is osetra caviar.

There isn’t much time. A team of two has 30 minutes to weigh, clean, salt, taste and jar these black pearls before they lose quality. “No one likes mushy caviar,” Mader tells us.

Mader oversees LaPaz farm in Lenoir, North Carolina, set in the Happy Valley region about 90 minutes north-west of Charlotte. Combined with its sister farm, Marshallberg Farm in Smyrna along the North Carolina coast, LaPaz is the largest source of farm-raised Russian sturgeon in the United States.

In these seemingly modest buildings, an ambitious experiment in sustainability is going on, bowl by bowl of harvested caviar. LaPaz and Marshallberg Farms are striving to show the economics of this business can work, that farming Russian sturgeon now endangered in the wild can be viable– even profitable – in the United States as a sustainable source of caviar.

These farms were set up in response to the troubling trends for wild caviar. Beluga caviar, the coveted gold standard of this luxurious delicacy, has been banned from import into the United States since 2005, because the sturgeon that provide the ever-popular fish eggs are endangered. There is even a ban on fishing Russian sturgeon, the source of osetra, in its natural habitat, the Caspian Sea. Any osetra caviar promoted as “wild” is either from the black market or not really osetra caviar.

Farming in the US has emerged as a possible alternative. But there are many challenges, from questions about animal rights, to the flavor of farm-raised caviar versus wild, to, most notably, whether American farms can raise awareness of the value of homegrown caviar when caviar imported from China is cheaper.

The caviar is processed in a room set at a cool 59 degrees to protect the product. Photograph: Andrea Cooper

Once the fish cutter lifts the caviar from the fish, the newly harvested eggs get passed through a connecting window to farm veteran Leigh King and her colleague in the processing room, set at a cool 59F to protect the product. They cut the caviar from the pink connective tissue, wash and drain the eggs in large bowls, and smoothen them with a spatula on a slanted mesh sheet as if they were spreading frosting. King hunts and removes sub-par eggs or impurities with a pair of tweezers, repeats the smoothing and hunting, and drains more droplets of water from the caviar on to what looks like an absorbent puppy pad.

“We want the eggs to have a good pop,” Mader, who is also the official taster, says as she scoops out a morsel. It’s her job to track and manage the fish so that the farms spreads harvests evenly throughout the year. If the sturgeon aren’t harvested when ready, the fish can actually start to reabsorb the eggs, which leads to mushy caviar.

Mader demonstrates the eggs’ firmness between her thumb and forefinger, before handing me a bit on a plastic spoon. Unsalted and fresh as caviar can be, it is a beguiling texture that delivers more than a mere flavor. Just as I’m not one to rhapsodize about notes of tobacco, cherries, or whatever in wine, I can’t discern whether these eggs are buttery or have an essence of hazelnut. But once King adds salt – 4.25%, based on total volume – and Mader gives me another spoonful, I begin to understand what the fuss is about.

Quickly piled into tins that are weighted down to press out excess air, the caviar will continue to absorb salt. Some of it will age one, three or six months and grow nuttier, a character that caviar distributors typically like – and pleasing distributors can be important, given the economics.

LaPaz’s prices on its website range from $65 to $93 for a one-ounce tin. An average sturgeon produces one to two kilograms (4.4lb) of caviar. A conservative estimate, then, might predict more than $2,000 in retail caviar sales from a single fish. For now, though, distributors are among the most important customers, and they buy caviar wholesale and resell it to chefs, hotels and other outlets. In the past, under a previous owner, LaPaz sold its caviar to Lincoln Ristorante at Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, among others.

Marshallberg bought LaPaz in 2017 partly because the farms needed their combined strength to have a shot at becoming a profitable business, supplying major distributors, and standing up to the cheaper and far more abundant Chinese product. They hope their gamble – a labor of love in a rarefied industry – will pay off.

“A big challenge is education,” says Lianne Won, who oversees marketing for LaPaz and Marshallberg. “How do you get people to make the step to spend a little more money but be able to say this product is sustainable, not harmful to the environment, and supporting the US economy?” When people dine on caviar, they want to have fun, not analyze, Won adds. “If you go to Las Vegas and order caviar, you aren’t going to ask if it’s sustainable.”

The male and female sturgeons are kept in separate tanks. Photograph: Andrea Cooper

Caviar wasn’t always synonymous with luxury. Sturgeon date to the era of dinosaurs, and with their back ridges called scutes, still bear a resemblance to kids’ dinosaur toys. They were once considered plentiful, according to Inga Saffron, author of Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy, and their eggs were nothing special.

Most of the world’s caviar during the 19th century came from US waters until sturgeon here began to dwindle, Saffron writes. Then the focus shifted to the Soviet Union, which largely controlled the market in the 20th century. Once the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, overfishing in the Caspian Sea and elsewhere accelerated. Lower supply and higher demand in the west led to caviar gaining currency as a symbol of wealth and prestige. Over the last two decades, with wild sturgeon far less plentiful, entrepreneurs have seen the potential and started caviar-farm operations in Israel, France and Uruguay.

The rise in interest has made caviar a posh ingredient for celebratory meals. And naturally, it invites pretentiousness. President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort caused an international uproar earlier this year by serving caviar with plastic, rather than the customary mother-of-pearl spoons. (Mother-of-pearl is presumably better because it’s non-reactive and doesn’t interfere with the caviar’s flavor, like silver would.)

Joe Doll, one of several founders of the Lenoir farm, was a pilot who flew cargo planes to and from Russia (and developed a taste for caviar on these jaunts). He saw firsthand how poaching and overfishing were reducing the numbers of Russian sturgeon. The species has lost mor