We had the pleasure of hosting former Top Chef contestants Melissa King and Casey Thompson at the Sturgeon Farm this month for a tour. This was an opportunity to continue our mission to collaborate with creative and talented minds and make sure that the people who use our product really understand where it comes from and what makes it so special. I hadn't been on the farm in a while so it was also interesting for me to see how much has changed and grown since my last visit.
Chef Melissa is the chef ambassador for Whole Foods Market and makes some bomb ice cream flavors for Humphrey Slocombe, like Hong Kong Milk Tea and Yuzu Cream. Melissa is getting a lot of buzz in the culinary world - she is named as "40 Under 40 Rising Stars" and one of "The Best Female Chefs in San Francisco". To no surprise, Chef Casey was selected Fan Favorite on her season of Top Chef. Casey currently consults for restaurants and hotels, offering her unique and clever food style for a variety of cuisines. She appears at many events on the culinary scene, putting together inspiring dishes.
The tour started at Kathy's House - the estate house by the farm property that was once owned and inhabited by an interesting and kind woman. A fan of Tsar Nicoulai's practices, she offered the house to the company and donated the profits to charity. With a large welcoming tree out front and an inviting pool in the yard, Kathy's House has become the heart of the Sturgeon Farm.
We visited the lettuce greenhouses where Ali, Vice President of Tsar Nicoulai, explained the amazing work we are doing with UC Davis and some of the best minds in aquaculture and aquaponics. As fans whirred above us, we peeked at some of the floating roots underneath the vibrant, luscious heads of butter lettuce. Little honeycomb shapes bobbed in the water below, trapping the nutrients in the water for the greens. We were each able to take a bite of some hearty lettuce on our way out.
Ali explained how everything we do at the farm is just following Mother Nature's lead to create something even more amazing. As I have mentioned on the blog before, the nutrients absorbed by the lettuce come from the natural fish waste in the tanks. In hydroponics, these nutrients are added in to the water. We don't have to do that. We actually add nothing extra besides a little bit more water to make up for evaporation. There is also no risk of E. coli because there is no soil. Everything is as efficient and sustainable as it can be. The lettuce grows because of the fish (just like water hyacinth might naturally grow on a pond) and the fish thrive with the help of the lettuce.
The tour also included a little farm with chickens (from which we get fresh eggs), goats, turkeys, and a beautiful horse. This farm sits outside the smoke house which has grown a lot since the last time I saw it. The team on the farm smoke sturgeon and salmon themselves, using a recipe created by our resident Willy Wonka, Auggie.
After trying out several different wood varieties, he discovered that the neighboring farm's applewood created the best flavor. Is that not the very essence of "terroir"? We all happily tried samples of the smoked sturgeon and salmon, which paired beautifully with fruit pulled from trees growing on the farm, I mean...
Our fish are grown where they live. The chefs, Ali, Xenia (Tsar Nicoulai's graphic designer) and I joined Auggie at the different tanks housing the tiny 2018 fish in one area to giant veterans in another. They spawn here, they hatch here, they grow here. They are carefully separated (by hand) first by size, later by sex. They are cared for, they are respected. Auggie caringly and easily scooped up a baby fish in his hand and talked about how they are grown here on the farm. Casey commented on how she hasn't seen anything like this. It's true, we are the only sturgeon farm doing what we do, from the very start to the absolute finish. Our farm team is made up of real, salt of the earth people, making a product with integrity, passion and pride. We all tried to catch and say hello to a little fish, but none of us could come close. Auggie is a true sturgeon whisperer.
We create single origin, single batch caviar. We strive to work with the brightest people in all our collaborations. Our partnerships keep growing and becoming more and more exciting. We were thrilled to have Melissa and Casey on our farm - two chefs who are innovative, passionate and care about their craft. Because of their love for local and sustainable ingredients, we were so honored to take the time and show them why and how we do what we do!
The tour ended where it started, at the heart - Kathy's house - where we shared our caviar and smoked fish with Melissa and Casey. Warm toasts and interesting ideas for the future (and Pringles!), were passed around the table. It could not have been a better day!
There is a new trend in knowing the story behind your food that we hope doesn’t fade out. Over centuries, the gap between farm and plate has widened for Americans. We shop the aisles of our grocery stores and know nothing about who grows or raises the food that we consume. How do they treat the animals, the crops, the environment? What are they putting into this food that we then absorb into our bodies? We have become so disconnected that some children may not even realize the milk they drink comes from a cow.
Thankfully recent food movements and trends are pushing to bridge this gap. It is important for us to know the answers to all those questions, so we can make educated decisions about what we eat based on what is important to us. Someone may be concerned about GMOs and growth hormones, while someone else is dedicated to helping our environment, or both.
At Tsar Nicoulai, we are passionate about keeping the food we produce clean and healthy and using practices that don’t harm our environment. Our sturgeon live in tanks that mimic their natural habitat. They are fed non-GMO feed and are never given growth hormones, so you can be confident in the quality of the fish. A sturgeon will be on the farm upwards of eight years, requiring much dedication from our farmers and team to make sure that the fish are healthy and happy under the California sun. Our farmers have even been known to sing to our fish. You might think that doesn't affect the outcome of our caviar, but we would challenge you to prove it doesn't ;-).
We recently implemented an aquaponics system to grow lettuce. The natural waste from the fish tanks flows down to our floating lettuce plants. The lettuce takes the rich nutrients from the water, cleans it and sends it back to the fish tanks. It is an incredibly sustainable, closed system that produces great caviar, and great lettuce, not to mention how much better it is for our environment. This is what we believe we should be supporting and the types of food that we should be consuming.
As a company, Tsar Nicoulai is completely hands on. We control every part of the process in every product we make. We check and control the quality of our caviar ourselves. Because of this we can also be 100% confident in the safety practices used in all aspects of our business. We have nothing to hide and are always happy to discuss our production with our customers.
Do we want to support a company that doesn't take pride in their product or their employees? What would that say about the product itself?
We want to take a moment this Labor Day to recognize our employees, farmers and partners at Tsar Nicoulai Caviar. It is because of all of them that we can be proud of the caviar, roe, smoked goods and lettuce that we produce. We love to share the passion of our team with our customers as it is important to us that they know where their seafood comes from and just how great it is!
We admit, we have a lot of favorite days of the year, but National Caviar Day, July 18th, is a big one.
We are especially excited to celebrate as we have been busy out on the sturgeon farm working with professionals in aquaculture to set up Bare Roots - our lettuce growing aquaponics system. The fish tanks and the lettuce fields work together to produce more sustainable and better products. You can read more about the magic (ok, the science) on the UC Davis website as well as stay tuned to our blog for more details.
In the meantime, don't overlook your plans for National Caviar Day. We are offering 50% off all caviar, roe and smoked fish purchases when you visit our online shop. Use the code 'caviarday' at check out now until July 18th, 2018.
Summer is the perfect time to gather some friends and enjoy life over something a little indulgent and a lot beautiful. We put so much thought, care and pride into our caviar and we love nothing more than to share it with you. And for you to share it with people you care about. Open some champagne, top a blini, the top of your hand, a potato chip, or whatever your heart desires, with some caviar and embrace all the good things in life. Amidst all the craziness that swirls around us, let's use National Caviar Day to slow down and make a beautiful moment that will stay with us for a long time.
It is that glorious time of year when you just want to cook or grill fresh and colorful things all the time. Gatherings with friends and family always linger when the days stay lighter longer. Keeping it fresh, simple and pretty become priority so there is more time for stories and laughs. We love how the vibrant color of our Ginger-Infused Whitefish Roe and Golden Whitefish Roe pops against the deep backdrop of sliced roasted beets. This dish makes a great appetizer for a sit down dinner, cocktail or backyard party. Once you roast the beets the rest comes together pretty quickly.
I usually roast beets whole and unpeeled at 400-420 degrees F, wrapped in some foil (either individually or in groups of 3-4 beets of similar size). After about 45 minutes I start to check them with a fork. If the fork slides through the beet easily they are done. If it doesn't, check them about every 10 minutes for doneness. Really big beets can take a couple hours to roast.
Once the beets are done and have cooled slightly, you can rub the peel right off under running water. Beets can stain, so be careful! Cut the beets into 1/2 inch slices, top with some creme fraiche and roe. Garnish with some greens for extra color.
Some exciting things have developed over here at Tsar Nicoulai Caviar...
In late September we had a chance introduction with a distributor for Tsukiji who directly imports fresh fish from the Tokyo auction for sushi restaurants in the Bay Area. Yoshi, a former chef of Sushi Ran, along with his associates, explored the opportunities for Tsar Nicoulai in Tokyo. The initial impression was favorable.
We hosted Yoshi and Kiochi who represent Sakasyu (the parent company of Tsukiji Market Auctions) at the farm and office to learn about the great stuff we do at our Sturgeon Farm and about all our daily operations. We sent them off with some caviar samples to scope out the local response.
Our connection with the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association (WUSATA) helped us secure a booth inside the USA Pavilion at FoodEx 2018 in Makuhari, Japan in early March. WUSATA is the foreign trade arm of the USDA that helps to promote overseas agricultural export via trade missions, exhibitions, and focused meeting. Tsar Nicouali's Vice President, Ali and Brand Manager, Ryan, ventured out to Tokyo to exhibit. The overall response to our caviar was very positive, and created a substantial amount of excitement for our upcoming initial shipment.
In addition to the FoodEx event, Ali and Ryan also visited Tsukiji, the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. There they met with Hicho, Tsukiji's top dealer, over some freshly cut Maguro (fatty tuna). Hicho always purchases the most expensive tuna at the market. This Maguro was $500/lb. Pictured below, Yoshi garnished the Maguro with Tsar Nicouali Caviar. Hicho said he had never seen caviar on Maguro before, but that he found the pairing outrageously good.
Historically it is believed that the Japanese Sturgeon (Acipenser Schrenkii) inhabited the sea of Japan, but the concept of custom inspired caviar is a new one. We plan to export a Japan market-specific caviar cured with one of the worlds finest salts harvested in Okinawan, launching an expansion of the concept we first cultivated in Sonoma working with the team from Jordan winery.
Ali, Ryan, and the team are working out the final details for the first shipment and are excited for orders to start coming in. We hope to follow the export of award winning California wines with award winning California caviar.
We expect a successful first launch sometime before the Summer! Stay tuned...