At Atlantic Caviar & Sturgeon, the workers like to joke that they wrestle with dinosaurs.
On a recent weekday morning, it’s literally true. The three unmarked warehouses, out in the country surrounded by cornfields, are filled with double rows of waist-deep pools filled with sturgeon, fish so unchanged for thousands of years that they are considered prehistoric.
With stubby white whiskers like a catfish and a ridge of bumps along its back, the fish really does look sort of like a swimming dinosaur.
And when two young men clad in chest-high waders start pulling a few 20-pound fish out of a tank for an ultrasound test, their long, sinuous bodies thrash as hard as the tail on a T. rex.
The fish are Russian sturgeon, and the ultrasound is to check whether its belly is full of caviar, the salty treat of gourmets and kings. North Carolina’s newest crop is the only true Russian caviar being harvested in North America.
So endangered and overfished in the wild that they are no longer harvested legally from the Caspian Sea, the Russian, Siberian and Atlantic sturgeon swimming outside Lenoir are part of a project that took six years to see results.
“It’s taken very deep pockets, and a lot of research, and a lot of good, hard labor,” says Elisabeth Wall, the marketing director of Atlantic Caviar. “Buyers are very excited.”
Aquaculture is just one more kind of farm in the Happy Valley, a gentle stretch of pastures and fields 90 miles northwest of Charlotte.
Atlantic Caviar started there with two men: cargo pilot Joe Doll and retired pharmaceutical manufacturer Bill White.
“Both of them were very grounded dreamers,” Wall says. Around 1998, White sold his company, Greer Laboratories, and wanted an investment.
Doll flew in and out of Russia and saw the trouble with dwindling Russian sturgeon. His family had been involved in the invention of air-filled packing materials, similar to bubble wrap, so he understood engineering.
Both were from the area, and they knew it had good water. So aquaculture was a natural choice. But they wanted something more interesting than tilapia or catfish.
“Historically, caviar has pretty much held its price, even in bad times,” Wall says.
Very slow growth
There’s a downside, though: Sturgeon can live for decades, so they grow very slowly. Atlantic’s first batches of sturgeon hatchlings were placed in tanks in late 2005. Then there was a six-year wait. Along the way, White died and left his share to the company and to N.C. State University, which has helped with the project.
In 2012, the first fish were big enough to yield what the world’s gourmets crave: salty fish eggs that sell for anywhere from $65 to $200 an ounce wholesale – and three times that at retail.
Among caviar fanciers, beluga is most desired and difficult to grow. Beluga sturgeon can grow to the size of whales.
Ossetra, the eggs of the Russian sturgeon, are the next most valued. With color that ranges from gold to brown, a nutty flavor and a creamy texture, it is often preferred by chefs and gourmet diners, who pile it on the little Russian pancakes called blini or simply savor it by the tiny spoonful.
Having an American source for caviar is a big deal for some chefs. While there is Russian caviar being produced in other countries, the only American caviar until now has been imitations such as paddlefish and salmon eggs.
Clark Barlowe, the chef-owner of Heirloom Restaurant in Charlotte, says Atlantic’s operation was a deciding factor in his restaurant’s style. He wanted to do an all-North Carolina menu but wasn’t sure he could get the level of food he wanted.
When he found out about Atlantic, he was amazed. “I thought, ‘If we can get caviar from North Carolina, then what can’t we get?’ ”
Aquaculture as a solution
You can’t consider caviar without controversy. Overfishing, pollution and loss of habitat – the dams on rivers that stop fish from going upstream to spawn – have devastated wild sturgeon, and fish-farming has been dogged by a bad reputation thanks to ocean pens for salmon.
Chuck Weirich has a doctorate in animal physiology and specializes in aquaculture. He now works for Atlantic, supervising the operation. He sees Atlantic as part of saving fish.
“They’re so valuable,” he says. “The good thing about aquaculture, we can have stock if the (wild) population crashes.”
Because of problems with interbreeding and pollution from farmed salmon and poorly regulated shrimp farms in Southeast Asia, aquaculture is misunderstood by consumers, Weirich says. An inland operation such as Atlantic doesn’t put wild fish at risk, and the water quality is monitored. Most of the water is filtered and recycled, and they even compost the fish droppings.
“There’s a demand for seafood production,” he says. People are eating more fish, so aquaculture is inevitable.
Whether there is a difference in taste between wild vs. farm-raised caviar is still debated. Michel Emery of New York was director of sales with the restaurant Petrossian and is now vice president of a global caviar distributor called Solex Catsmo. He thinks farm-raised does have a milder taste.
But it’s a moot point, he says: Farm-raised is now what there is.
“A lot of chefs and users are happy to be able to indulge and not be part of a problem, but part of a solution,” Emery said. “If the sturgeon in the Caspian are overfished, any responsible person would not want to be part of that.”
Sought after in NYC
While there has been work in alternate methods to get the eggs from live fish, including a form of cesarean section, Atlantic harvests its caviar the traditional way:
First, they use ultrasound to find out whether a fish is male or female. Then the females are checked regularly, until they have eggs that are large enough and have the right texture and size.
After the fish is dispatched with a single blow to the head, it is carefully wiped clean, then slit open through the tough, shark-like skin.
Inside, the dark eggs are packed together so closely, they look like asphalt. A single mature Russian sturgeon can produce almost 4 pounds of eggs.
While they harvested 400 kilos last year, or 880 pounds, they’re hoping to reach 850 kilos this year. Atlantic Caviar will have the North American market to itself for a few years.
Joe Doll is now working with another farm on the coast, in Marshallberg, but it’s about three years from harvest. An operation in Georgia is about that far from harvest, too.
Elisabeth Wall is rushing to develop markets for both caviar and for fresh and smoked sturgeon.
Besides Heirloom, it’s also being used in Charlotte at Baku and sold by the vendor Lucky Fish, which is found at several local farmers markets.
It’s also going a lot farther from home. The meat and caviar have made it into famous places in New York, including Petrossian and Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side.
Before coming to Charlotte, Heirloom chef Clark Barlowe worked at both the French Laundry in California and El Bulli in Spain.
Barlowe says what Atlantic is producing is as good as anything he’s tried at those world-famous kitchens.
“I’d put it up against anything else,” he says. “We don’t bring ingredients in just because they’re North Carolina products. We bring in products that are great and just happen to come from North Carolina.”