How Idaho became caviar country

January 22, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC
Image Source—Getty Images

In December, chef Eric Wupperman decided to offer caviar as part of a special seafood night at his restaurant in Leadville, Colorado. He considered sturgeon eggs from up-and-coming producers in Italy and Belgium before opting for an even newer upstart in the caviar market—a supplier from the state of Idaho.

The idea of a small town restaurant serving American caviar would have been inconceivable twenty-five years ago, when the delicacy was synonymous with white tie snobbery, and imported from Russia and Iran. In recent years, however, the caviar market has been thoroughly upended by geopolitical and conservation concerns. Those factors, along with millennials’ more adventurous palates, has helped create an opportunity for American fish farmers.

“I used to have Russian people coming to my backdoor with suitcases full of caviar but that doesn’t happen any more,” says Rod Mitchell, who owns Maine-based caviar purveyor Browne Trading.

Mitchell says famed caviar harvested from wild beluga surgeon in the Caspian sea has all but disappeared from American shores as a result of environmental degradation and tighter enforcement of a 1973 treaty barring the trading of endangered goods. He recalls other caviar brokers going to jail for violating import laws and falsifying origin documents.

Other countries, relying on farmed sturgeon, have since filled the void. The most prominent of these is Israel, whose Galilee Caviar appears on menus of swanky restaurants like the Left Bank in Aspen and Daniel in New York City. 

“I like it because it’s very consistent, the texture is very nice, and it has a nice pop and nutty flavor,” says Jean-François Bruel, the executive chef of Daniel, where patrons can pay $375 for “caviar service” that consists of a 2-ounce tin with crunchy accoutrements.

American caviar producers are still relatively new to the game. Sturgeon farmers in California’s Sacramento Valley began producing the first high-end American fare in the 1990s, and those in states like North Carolina and Florida soon followed suit. Today, purveyors point to Idaho’s Snake River White Sturgeon brand, which produces limited but highly sought after eggs, as top of the line.

“Idaho is far and away the best and if you have time to visit their facility you’d understand why,” says Dale Sherrow of Seattle Caviar Co.

Meanwhile, at the lower end of the market, fishermen in Kentucky have been hauling a cousin of the sturgeon known as the paddlefish out of the Ohio river to produce tens of thousands of pounds of so-called spoonbill caviar. Mitchell of Browne Trading describes the Kentucky fare as passable but says it falls short when it comes to the 3 Ts—taste, tone, and texture—he uses to evaluate caviar. “It looks like shoe polish,” he says.

Despite the surge in American caviar production, the nascent industry has faced headwinds in recent years as a result in a glut of production from China, which has driven down prices around the globe. In late 2018, imported caviar in the U.S., half of which came from China, sold for around $275 a kilogram, a 50% drop from 2012, according to U.N. statistics.

U.S. producers have responded by emphasizing the quality and provenance of their caviar, including their clean water sources and lack of preservatives. They have also received help from 25% tariffs imposed on Chinese caviar as part of the ongoing trade war.

But even as prices come under pressure, the U.S. caviar industry is being buoyed by increased consumption. In recent years, specks of caviar are increasingly appearing on sushi rolls and on brunch dishes. “Millennials are interested in caviar as part of exploring cuisine. It’s being used by home chefs and as a part of meal kits. Our biggest sales increase has been for home delivery,” says Mitchell. 

Younger gourmands, it seems, are embracing the delicacy not just as a status symbol, but because they actually like the way it tastes.

A version of this article appears in the February 2020 issue of Fortune.

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