Peter Struffenegger is a marine and fisheries biologist by training, but since 1986 he has dedicated himself to raising caviar’s living vessel: the sturgeon. Today he is the general manager at Sterling Caviar, one of several California firms that have elevated domestic caviar, ensuring that the quintessential delicacy is available for generations to come. Having spent more than two decades studying the sturgeon, continually seeking to improve his approach, the world-class caviar that he helps produce at Sterling is now found on the tables of restaurants such as Jean-Georges, Eleven Madison Park and The French Laundry.
What are the factors that make for great caviar?
I think that most people who get into sturgeon production for the caviar do not understand the fish itself. They look at it as a means of producing caviar as a product. Sturgeon is one of the most fascinating fishes to work with and study. To make a great product, you have to understand the fish and it’s needs. Only then can you start to make good caviar. So while a lot goes on in caviar processing, packaging and storage, the real secret is how you treat the fish, how well you understand it’s needs and meet those needs.
How has you operation evolved? What has the learning process been like?
At the start we were pretty naïve about sturgeon and the potential for caviar production. Sturgeon is like salmon, an anadromous fish. It lives in salt water and returns to fresh water to spawn. We tried and eventually succeeded in raising the sturgeon in entirely fresh water. We got a lot of information on how to spawn sturgeon from Russia with the defection in the late 70’s of one of their leading fisheries scientists who ended up as a professor at UC Davis, which is only about 20 minutes away [from Sterling]. He showed that the techniques developed by the Soviets for spawning returning females and males that were prevented from returning to their spawning grounds by dams could be replicated. The Soviets spawned the fish and released millions of baby fish below the dams. But that is where the technology ended and we had to figure out how to complete the life cycle completely on the farm. Nutrition studies, disease studies, genetic studies and more all had to be done in collaboration with the university to understand sturgeon.
What is it like to work on a project where you have to wait so long to see results?
It’s been fun to work on such a long-term project, but only because I am not an owner but an employee. So there have been a lot of challenges that are very different if you are spending someone else’s money instead of your own. This has been the challenge to spend it wisely. Otherwise, as we are starting to see on other firms’ efforts to raise sturgeon commercially, companies are starting to fail because of the long-term investment needed. They lack an understanding of how much money it takes to get to the point of sustainable production.
What do you think is the future of the caviar trade?
What has been amazing to see is that in the year 2000, about 95% of all caviar worldwide was wild caught and only about 5% was farm-raised – if even that much. Today, the market is served with 100% farm-raised product. As other countries – especially less developed ones like China who have lower production costs, a better regulator climate and a government who works to help them rather than hinder – develop and become competitive in the marketplace we will continue to face challenges. But as we have already seen on items produced in China, there are issues with things like lead in toys and melamine in certain foods, they take advantage of that lack of regulatory oversight and push it even further. So there will be price pressures from these low cost producers, and the challenge will be to maintain our high standards to ensure quality and wholesomeness and convince the consumer to accept paying a higher price for it.
I enjoy caviar ‘naked’ – that is spooned on the back of the hand and licked off. If I want to enjoy the flavors and caviar experience, I don’t want crème fraîche, onions, egg whites and blinis to interfere. I do like caviar on blinis with all those things, but if I find a very good caviar, it is best to experience it on its own.