The Sturgeon King

Where to get the best caviar in America.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

The 1960s American ban on Cuban cigars so devastated Fidel Castro that American policy-makers didn’t hesitate, a decade later, to punish the flag-burning ayatollahs with a similar ban on Iranian caviar. By now, an entire generation of American cigar smokers has paid the price of freedom by buying overpriced ersatz Havanas made in the Dominican Republic or Honduras from imitation Cuban tobacco. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the descent into anarchy of much of the former Soviet sturgeon fishery, the leaders of the free world have also become the primary market for inedible caviar processed from sturgeon caught by Russian and Kazakh poachers and clumsily salted in clandestine plants by shady post-Soviet capitalists.

Americans who want a decent smoke can smuggle Cohibas, but caviar enthusiasts can survive the Iranian embargo legally by calling the Browne Trading Co. in Portland, Maine, at (800) 944-7848. Rod Mitchell, Browne Trading’s president, imports impeccable Russian caviar selected from the few former Soviet processors that still observe the old rules originally imposed by the czars, faithfully honored by the Bolsheviks, but ignored since 1989 by Russian free marketers.

Mitchell, who has built his business on the delicacy of his palate (he was profiled last week in the New York Times as the prime supplier of the city’s high-end fish), speaks with the understated authority of a master craftsman. He claims he can taste the difference between caviar from one sturgeon and another. One reason to give him the benefit of the doubt is that on his mother’s side he’s a Browne, descended from a family that began trading caviar nearly four centuries ago from Atlantic sturgeon caught at the mouth of the Kennebec River north of Portland. Another reason is that the gleaming caviar Mitchell imports from the former Soviet Union is pure magic. Spoonful after spoonful plays across the palate like an ocean breeze. If money were not an issue, an average American in good health could dispose of a pound of Mitchell’s golden osetra in a single afternoon. A third reason is that his caviar is favored by many of the chefs who occupy America’s culinary stratosphere. Daniel Boulud of Daniel’s calls it “the pearl of our business.” Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin has been serving it for the past five years. Gray Kunz of Lespinasse calls it a benchmark. I have known wine tasters who say they can distinguish in a sip of Burgundy the intensity of autumn sunshine that warmed a particular slope of the Côte d’Or a decade ago. And there are cabinetmakers I have heard of who can diagnose the health of the tree (when it was alive) by the feel of its grain in a length of seasoned lumber. But Rod Mitchell is the only craftsman I know who can credibly claim such intimacy with sturgeon.

The brochure that Mitchell and his wife, Cynde, have designed for their Browne Trading Co. features a photograph taken in 1947 of Rod’s maternal relatives standing over a young Atlantic sturgeon weighing perhaps 200 pounds. Full grown, these fish weigh two to three times as much and are now a protected species, but they were once so abundant in American waters that Aaron Burr claimed he could cross the Hudson from Manhattan to New Jersey on their backs. In those innocent years of the young republic, Americans didn’t eat much caviar. What they didn’t carelessly discard they packed in salt and shipped to the tables of Europe’s great nobles. By the time American appetites outgrew their democratic origins, local sturgeon had become scarce. Now the world’s best caviar comes from the Caspian Sea–most of it from the Iranian side, which means it can’t be sold in the United States.

The time to harvest sturgeon is at the appropriate moment during their seasonal journey upstream to spawn. Mitchell selects his caviar from the long-established processing plants at the mouth of the Volga at Astrakhan and at Atyraü (formerly Guriev), where the Ural empties into the Caspian in Kazakhstan. These plants still strictly control the catch along the spawning grounds, but poachers now take sturgeon with impunity from the depths of the Caspian before their eggs are firm. It is caviar from these fish that is clumsily processed and enters the American market for sale, often at bargain prices, to unwary buyers. Wary buyers, however, can spot such caviar instantly. The aroma is likely to be fishy or stale. The eggs will seem shapeless and gummy or oily and filmed with a whitish glaze. The flavor will be strong or dull or salty. The eggs may be of various colors and sizes or have turned to jelly.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

If Rod Mitchell were placed in a lineup of suspected caviar experts, he would be the least likely choice. When we met for lunch the other day at Daniel’s restaurant in Manhattan, Mitchell looked much younger than his 42 years, and though he was well turned out in suit and tie, I felt he would be much happier on the deck of the Pequod. Twenty-five years ago, Mitchell had a summer job running the launch at Maine’s Camden Yacht Club when a yachtsman offered him a job selling wine in a shop he had just opened in a restored 18th century mill. The shop stocked Montrachets and Haut-Brions for Camden’s summer aristocracy, and soon Mitchell was selling French cheese, foie gras, and so on. One day Jean-Louis Palladin, whose Watergate restaurant in Washington, D.C., would soon elevate him to culinary stardom, walked into the shop and asked for caviar. When Mitchell confessed he didn’t stock it, Palladin offered to introduce him to an Iranian importer. That winter Mitchell began selling his Caspian caviar to chefs in Boston. The following summer another of his customers, who owns one of France’s great first-growth vineyards, invited him to Bordeaux, and it was there that Mitchell decided on the career in fine food that would eventually lead him to re-establish Browne Trading, the family business that, for generations, had been selling caviar, fish, and other seafood from the mouth of the Kennebec.

You don’t have to own a restaurant to order Mitchell’s caviar. If you’ve just won the lottery or taken your Internet company public, you can probably afford to treat yourself to 2 ounces of his beluga at $115. The same quantity of osetra, which comes from a much smaller species of sturgeon whose eggs are about a third the size of beluga but whose flavor many people prefer, costs $60. Two ounces of sevruga from the smallest of the three Caspian species can be had for a mere $38. Since silver spoons sometimes lend a metallic taste to caviar, Mitchell sells spoons made of mother-of-pearl for as little as $25 a pair (or you can save your money and use plastic).

Whatever you do, never serve caviar with chopped egg or onion or capers, and use lemon sparingly if at all. These are relics of a time when fresh caviar of the best quality was hard to find in the United States. The best way to enjoy Mitchell’s caviar is just as it comes from the tin. If you have some left over, it will keep in the refrigerator for a week or so, as long as you stir it from time to time so that the surface doesn’t dry out. Caviar in tins that have never been opened can be kept for longer periods at 26 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the oil will keep the caviar from freezing. Home freezers, which are much colder, are not recommended.

Though it is always best to eat caviar by itself, you might try a spoonful atop some of Mitchell’s belon oysters, the intensely flavored French variety that has been transplanted to Maine waters and now grows wild there. Or, to enliven an otherwise slow afternoon, you might remove the upper third of an eggshell, deposit the raw egg in a small pitcher or juice glass, and scramble it under the steam nozzle of an espresso machine. Then return the cooked egg to the lower portion of the eggshell, mix with a spoonful of osetra, and have a second and third egg on hand with which to repeat the process until satiated. If you accompany each egg with a shot of triple distilled, ice cold vodka, your afternoon will soon acquire a dreamlike consistency.