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Stories from the valley

Right out of Prehistory

Contributed by Jim Morris

Who would have guessed the quintessential food of royalty gets its start at a nondescript rural farm north of Sacramento?

One more claim to fame for Sacramento Valley agriculture is Caviar Capitol of North America.  Although wild sounding it makes a lot of sense, considering the Sacramento River is home for White Sturgeon, a prehistoric fish that yields exquisite caviar.

Sturgeon 1A more sustainable approach to caviar was definitely in order following a century of overfishing of wild sturgeon in Russia’s Caspian Sea. Fortunately, several fortuitous steps happened to help Sterling Caviar deliver an exquisite quality farmed product.

In the late 1970s, a top fisheries scientist defected from Russia and became a professor at UC Davis. He helped develop successful spawning techniques for the local White Sturgeon, setting into motion a local and sustainable business like no other in our region. So sustainable that Sterling is now working with leading universities specializing in aquaculture to return some of their captive-born baby fish back to the wild.

Caviar is not everyone’s cup of tea, but those who love are willing to pay dearly for it (up to $400 for a little more than an ounce.)

SB 1“It’s a very acquired taste,” commented Sterling’s Manager Director Shaoching Bishop. “There’s a lot of perception in the taste. If you feel this is a luxury product, you can detect the creamy, buttery aspects. People romanticize the whole concept.”

Raising sturgeon is not for the impatient. Bishop said it takes about three years simply to determine if the sturgeon is male or female, then another five years before they are fully mature.  In essence, they raise sturgeon for a decade with the best-case scenario being about 10 pounds of caviar per fish.

Sterling produces about 12 tons of caviar a year. Competition is growing internationally from farms in Germany, France, China, Italy and the Middle East.

This farm is quite a switch for Bishop, who had been an investment banker.

“They are both top quality companies,” she remarked. “Goldman Sachs is elite in the investment banking industry and Sterling is the top in the caviar industry. I don’t settle for second class!”