The VICE Guide to Caviar
Do you like caviar? Did you ever stop to ponder just how it geared you up to get laid with a flute of champagne by the fire, or even just decadently splooged across your pancakes? I know how, and I am about to tell you, and both of us will never be the same again.
First off, forget about getting that rare beluga shit. Don’t even think about it. The beasts it comes from are critically endangered, they live primarily in the Caspian Sea—the world’s largest saltwater lake—and we need to just leave them the fuck alone. It might feel really sexy and fun, like you are some hot expensive playa, to eat something that is about as common as getting struck by a meteor, but what little cache beluga caviar once possessed, that posturing of some kind of grandeur or whatever, is falling out of fashion faster than those yeti coats from last season. It doesn’t make you look any younger, it’s not an aphrodisiac, and it doesn’t even taste that good. Killing a 2,000-pound creature just to harvest its eggs that’ll run you $8000 a kilo is some major bullshit. Stop.
Especially because there are more sustainable ways to get your egg fix. While in New Brunswick, I checked out a neat little short-nosed sturgeon farm and got “The Grand Tour,” sampled some embryos, and pretty much fainted afterwards.
Primer: Sturgeon are an ancient genus, probably looking pretty similar to how they did over 250 million years ago. Tough cookies these fish—they have exo-skeletons, armor plating on their backs, and can live in either fresh or saltwater. Cray cray! There are about 26 remaining species of sturgeon left in the world, many of them having been hunted to extinction for caviar.
These above ground containment tanks hold about 9,000 sturgeon in various stages of maturity. They are fed a pellet consisting of low-grade fish, and the water is pushed through some kind of bio-filtering system to keep things nice and fresh for them. It’s a very efficient, clean, and green-friendly model. The only problem is those feed pellets: they promote nasty fishing techniques in terms of how they are produced. A switch to a bean-based vegetable pellet would be much better. As soon as they are old enough the females are tagged, “sexed,” and separated. From this point the female sturgeon are monitored to see just when they are ripe for the pickin'.
All these girls have been hanging out here in the priming tank for about a week or so, not eating their fish pellets and generally getting all empty and purified. Cleansing, waiting to be brought to…
The killing platform! The sturgeon are brought here and “percussion stunned” with that baton there before being slid through that green hole into the extracting room. The percussion stun method is the fastest, most humane way of killing them, apparently. There is a CO2 method that is possible as well that just suffocates them, but they don’t use that trick in this place.
Time to put on our egg harvesting suits! The extraction room is kept extremely clean, and so we basically have to scrub in like George Clooney before we can enter.
Inside we wait by the green circle for our girl to poke her little head through.
The fish is then weighed and cut along the belly with a scalpel to reveal the thousands of juicy embryos within.
The roe is removed, and the rest of the fish is processed to the point of “bullets,” which are shipped around the world for meat. Russians really like them, apparently.
Next, the eggs are pushed and rubbed gently through a wide screen, basically just to remove them from the fatty placenta they are all attached to.
Once they are all off of there, they are rinsed repeatedly with ice water until the water loses that bloody pink color.
Finally, each individual spec of blood and gore is separated from the eggs with a pair of tweezers.
Now that the ova are all clean and sparkly we stop here for a little taste tester bump before bringing them to the salting stage. You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted those sweet eggs straight from the ovaries, let me tell you. I am instructed to gently press them to the roof of my mouth where they quickly become a jelly that slides to the back of my throat. The taste is clean at first, followed by a buttery velvety one, and I feel kind of high after, but it could be because all the blood has just about drained from my head at this point.
Over at the salting station a precise amount of fine salt is added to the eggs and weighed out on this handy little drug scale, which quickly changes the texture to a much more viscous one.
We have to wait a bit, then stir, then wait some more. I am pretty over this whole scene by this time.
Finally, the caviar is drained, packed into tins, and pressed with bricks while in the tin, and left to leach out some kind of yellow liquid through a special slit in its special tin. I am not sure exactly about that element of it because I kind of stopped listening and was more focused on not getting sick from the smell of disinfectant and raw embryos.
After curing with the salt for a little while, the caviar takes on that more familiar briny ocean flavor, which I am taking their word on because after all that, I unfortunately had to decline the tasting portion of the tour.
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