Serving caviar is a statement of opulence, a sense of perceived luxury underscored by exotically named Russian imports.
But the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the plundering of Caspian Sea sturgeon, the source of dearly priced and delectable roe. And in 2005, after poaching and overfishing of the Caspian depleted 90 percent of the precious fishery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service severely restricted imports of beluga, osetra, and sevruga, to make Russia’s best an illicit indulgence.
Human nature often denigrates the familiar and extols the exotic, but great caviar comes from many sources.
As they say, there are other fish in the sea.
While connoisseurs yearn for the fruits of the Volga River, Scandinavians have long looked to Great Lakes fish for their culinary treasure, as do many American chefs and connoisseurs.
“Regional caviar processors get their fish from all three upper Great Lakes, harvested during the fall spawning run,” says Marquette-based biologist Ronald Kinnunen.
As Ralph Wilcox, a fourth-generation Lake Superior fisherman, explains, “Whitefish come onto the shoals in September to clean their beds and run competing fish out before their November spawning. We can take the roe until Nov. 6, when the season closes for a month.”
A 10-pound fish will have about two pounds of roe. “That’s worth some money,” to both fishermen and fish houses along the Michigan shoreline, Wilcox says.
Every autumn, Jill Bentgen, of the Mackinac Straits Fish Co., becomes an alchemist, transforming copious quantities of base fish eggs into exquisite golden caviar. “The key,” she says, “is to process the eggs within the first couple of hours, because you can’t hold them long.” The membranes covering the delicate roe are removed for a gentle washing before the eggs are quickly cooled and dried to prevent any bacteria growth. “Federal law requires the addition of 5-percent salt, which also preserves the texture, since the small roe has a substantial egg wall,” she adds.
As for taste, Bentgen says the high-protein whitefish caviar “has a pop-in-your-mouth texture and a mild, clean flavor that hints of salt and lends perfectly to infusions or smoking.”
Still, many residents around the Great Lakes are oblivious to the caviar source in their midst. Bentgen says that, although many of her employees appreciate caviar and eat it during the processing season, there is nearly no domestic market for the local delicacy. The overwhelming majority is exported to Scandinavia, with a noted exception: Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel.
“The hotel prides itself on serving local trout and whitefish, and the chefs here love the golden color of whitefish caviar as a garnish and for hors d’oeuvres,” says Jim Zeart, who buys caviar for The Grand. “We also use the large, orange eggs of salmon and fine-grained black bowfin roe for our guests, who enjoy the pleasure of Great Lakes caviar,” Zeart says.
However, not everyone in the heartland has been as receptive.
“We’ve been in this business for 20-odd years, and what odd years they have been,” says Rachel Collins, who launched Collins Caviar in 1983 with her daughter, Carolyn. Rachel says educating a skeptical public about the qualities of domestic freshwater caviar has been nothing less than arduous because, “America is not a caviar culture.”
“Fortunately,” she says, “we have had great support and acknowledgment from regional chefs and consumers.”
The women launched their caviar business after their hobby of fishing spawned the idea that there could be culinary potential in the eggs of the Great Lakes Chinook Salmon they caught. No recipes existed for the arcane process that’s part art, part science. So they experimented at their kitchen sink.
Today, Collins does a bustling mail-order business from a 6,000-square-foot facility in Michigan City, Ind.
To some, the concept of domestic caviar seems more frugal than lavish. That may be changing, however. Rachel says the public is growing ever savvier about gastronomic trends, including what may be the most popular of the moment: buying local.