The Caviar and Sturgeon of Idaho

by Roger Ward | Photo © Idaho Fish Processors

Ask a roomful of fish eaters which Idaho product tastes best and you’ll have an almost unanimous roar of “trout, trout.” A few will quietly mention one of the state’s hottest products, sturgeon, but scarcely anyone will let out the secret that Idaho produces prized white sturgeon caviar.

Sturgeon was an early staple of the American diet because it provides plenty of firm white protein. Overfishing combined with polluted waters made these fish less prized in the 20th century. The clean, cold rivers of Idaho, however, proved that sturgeon was still a delicacy, so much so that the state mandated catch-and-release to ensure its survival. Commercial production was slow to gain a foothold; to many chefs, it looked more like an armored prehistoric monster than a delicate entree.

Today, demand is growing, especially as restaurants showcase its versatility. Chefs have learned to take advantage of farmed sturgeon’s delicate veal-like flavor and texture. Fish of 200-250 pounds, ten or more years old, are harvested for both meat and eggs. The eggs, formerly used as fish food, have recently found a new, and higher, calling.

One innovator, seeing an opportunity brought by the near collapse of caviar production from the Caspian Sea in the 1990’s, speculated that roe from harvested sturgeon might be produced for market. Leo Ray, with his wife Judy, built Fish Processors, Inc. in 1973 in the Hagerman Valley near the Snake River and were pioneers of sturgeon farming. Having introduced tilapia farming to the United States using local warm springs, and having brought catfish farming further north than anyone expected, Ray was up to the challenge of mastering the secrets of caviar production. When asked why people love his caviar, Ray said, “People enjoy the clean crisp taste. We use only free freeflowing Idaho spring water, and the water makes all the difference.”

Currently Ray’s farm produces about 1,000 pounds of caviar yearly, and is the only caviar-producing member of the “Idaho Preferred” program of quality Idaho agricultural products. With demand increasing, he’s in the process of expanding rapidly. As his caviar is served in restaurants, the question on people’s lips is, “Idaho produces worldclass caviar?” Who knew?

A great place to taste Idaho caviar is at the Sun Valley Harvest Festival (this year September 18-21, sunvalleyharvestfestival.com), an event that features this delicacy and more every year. For more information about how to purchase Idaho caviar online, go to idahosbounty.org/Products.aspx and search for “caviar.” For information about visiting Idaho, go to visitidaho.org.