On New Year's Day, Consider the Sturgeon

When Peter the Great gave Louis XV a gift of caviar, the French king tried it, and then spat it out on the floor of Versailles. About 320 years later we seem to have gotten used to the taste. “The fancy cars, the women and the caviar, you know who we are,” sings Ludacris in “Pimpin’ All Over the World.” It’s not just that these fish eggs taste good: they taste like the high life.

Look beyond its aura of glamour and you’ll find that caviar is the product of an intricate and shifting global industry. With U.S. bans on caviar from the critically endangered Caspian and Black Sea sturgeon, traditionally the source of the most prized eggs, that business got a lot more complicated.

Those 2005 and 2006 bans lured a lot of fish farmers into the sturgeon business, says Shaoching Bishop, managing director of Sterling Caviar LLC , a company that has been producing caviar from farmed sturgeon since 1993. Unfortunately, the sturgeon (weight: up to 1,500 pounds) is in no hurry to produce caviar. "Typically, a mature sturgeon bears eggs after at minimum seven to eight years," says Bishop, "and for that reason we're just now beginning to see a lot more competition in the market."

It’s not just the U.S. that’s creating a market shift. “The market price for caviar is actually trending downwards because of foreign competition,” says Bishop, who previously worked as an analyst at Goldman Sachs. “The biggest player is in Italy right now. They just created a big sturgeon farm to produce 30 tons of caviar for the next seven or eight years.” Sterling Caviar is also expanding production, planning to more than double its current 13 tons by 2018.

All those tons add up to many, many tiny ivory spoonfuls of farmed caviar. But there's one thing that the new school of caviar producers haven't yet achieved: bringing back caviar from the Beluga sturgeon, the nuttiest, largest, and most effervescent example of caviar perfection. Beluga is notoriously difficult to keep alive in a farmed habitat.

Marky’s, a caviar importer and retailer that started its own fish farm around 10 years ago, is aiming to change that. Before the Beluga ban went into effect, Marky's brought live Beluga sturgeon into the U.S., in order to breed them. “We have 26,000 Beluga that we’ll be able to reproduce,” says Christopher Hlubb, the company's president.

Hlubb thinks that prices on lower-but-still-amazing grades of caviar will fall when he reintroduces Beluga to the market. Bishop, too, says that the growth of the industry will yield less expensive (for heaven's sake, don't say "cheaper") caviar. “It’s a simple question of supply and demand,” she says.

Will caviar ever be the casual snack of millions? Not a chance: Even if its provenance is now more likely to be Floridian than Caspian, caviar is still a luxury food. But there’s a good possibility that very soon, U.S. consumers won’t have to write a Top 40 song about the stuff just to try it.

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