Caviar. Not an everyday thing for most people, including me—but for New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day or a milestone birthday, caviar is pretty much guaranteed to set off a giddy feeling of celebration. Assuming you serve it with plenty of Champagne or prosecco.
My go-to caviar hors d’oeuvre consists of steamed fingerling potatoes, their insides scooped, mixed with crème fraiche and chives, piled back in the shells and garnished with caviar. Salmon roe look lovely but for a big flourish (and a big splurge), it’s gotta be glistening black sturgeon caviar. Which brings us to newly branded Black Opal Premium Reserve Caviar, processed just down the road in Sarasota and shippable anywhere in the U.S.
South Florida caviar? Seems counterintuitive that eggs from sturgeon, fish that love icy waters, would come from our semi-tropical region. But that’s what’s happening at Healthy Earth Sarasota, where acquaculture operations director Jim Michaels showed me around.
Michaels, a veteran of sturgeon farming in northern California, oversaw development of the technology by Mote Marine Laboratory, a leader in sustainable uses of marine resources. Last September the not-for-profit decided the time was right for investment company Seven Holdings to take over the marketing, sales and distribution of its carefully nurtured product. The brand name Healthy Earth Sarasota distinguishes it from the company’s other sustainable seafood ventures along Florida’s west coast.
My tour started with a tank of tadpole-sized Siberian sturgeon, feeding on nutrients in the sacs they’re hatched with. The chilled water is what their species are accustomed to but as they grow and move to new tanks, they gradually adjust to higher water temperatures, thereby reducing power needs. Mote Marine also pioneered rigorous methods of water filtering and reuse, resulting in far less demand for fresh water than a typical fish farming operation.
Michaels told me the dark fish with strange snouts darting through water in the last tanks were up to seven years old. Sometimes that’s how long the eggs take to mature. Seven years. It might take that long to grow an olive tree, but the tree produces fruit year after year. A fully matured sturgeon represents a one-time investment. It’s not hard to see why caviar costs so much.
We moved on to a processing room where a worker was filleting sturgeon, its precious eggs already harvested, to be sold in fish markets. And then the sterile space where the eggs are gently rubbed against a screen to eliminate ovarian tissue before being mixed by hand with kosher salt, using the “lightly salted” Malossol method. Grading by egg size, color and firmness follows similar
criteria as for Caspian Sea beluga, osetra and sevruga—but the sturgeon species are different, so to avoid confusion, Black Opal is designated as “osetra-class caviar.”
Processors pack the caviar in jars ranging in size from the two ounces a consumer like me might buy to a one-kilo tin sold to restaurants such as Restaurant BT, where caviar is paired with big-eye tuna or used as a garnish for cucumber-pumpkin-coconut soup. Caviar from different fish is never mixed in a container. It requires aging for a month under refrigeration and, as with Champagne, the containers must be rotated according to a set schedule.
Asked how he likes to eat caviar, Michaels said, “Naked.” Making a fist, he showed how to place caviar in the crevice between thumb and index finger. I’ve seen Italians do the same thing when tasting freshly pressed olive oil.
I was dying to know how Black Opal caviar tasted. A few days later I found out, as our guests ate their way through a platterful of creamy fingerlings topped with caviar. I’m not an expert but to me it tasted delicious—delicately briny and uniquely suited for celebrations.