Tired of spending upwards of $100 an ounce for caviar and then fretting that you're not getting the real thing or—worse—threatening the ecosystem? Lovers of salty roe are looking homeward to a burgeoning market in domestic caviar that, while not offering the exact experience, allows them to indulge their taste in fish eggs for as little as an eighth of the price of some Russian caviars.
Caspian Sea sturgeon caviar, once the only choice of purists, has suffered since the fall of the Soviet Union, becoming rarer (a result of overfishing), prohibitively expensive and spotty in quality as the once state-regulated industry went freelance. (A recent rash of counterfeiting even sent some esteemed dealers to jail.) At the same time, sturgeon and alternative roe harvested in the United States have improved dramatically over the last decade, according to caviar dealers like Hossein Aimani of Paramount Caviar, Mark Russ Federman of Russ & Daughters and Dale Sherrow of Seattle Caviar Co. Federman says he resisted the American product for years, but it's now become a viable alternative, especially as beluga has been listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A range of domestic roe, which includes white sturgeon, hackleback (another sturgeon), paddlefish (a close relative of sturgeon) and non-sturgeons, such as wild salmon and golden whitefish, offers a spectrum of flavors. Of those, paddlefish is most often favorably compared with sevruga. While the experts say that domestic roe doesn't produce the same depth of flavor or finesse as the best beluga caviar, they agree that each has its place in the market as well as the palate—just as domestic cigars are often compared with Cubans. Lewis Shuckman, who harvests roe from the spoonfish (the Kentucky term for paddlefish) that he smokes at Shuckman's Fish Co. & Smokery, in Louisville, says its accessibility has made it a staple for some people rather than a special-occasion food. "It's not just Christmas anymore. We get a lot of orders at Derby time."
Sherrow chimes in that a big plus with American caviar is that "you don't have to be delicate about your consumption." Or as one wag observed, the problem may not be getting enough caviar, but getting enough toast to go with it.