Something Fishy

A bubbling demand for Missouri caviar spawns cutthroat competition.

Rachel Collins, owner of Chicago-based Collins Caviar, likens the sea change to one among oenophiles. "In the 1960s, the American wine industry was spotty, hit-or-miss, and gastronomes -- mostly French -- said, 'Oh, this wine is no good,'" Collins explains. "Through vintners honing their craft and an enormous amount of public awareness, as time moved forward, so did the public perception and acknowledgement of how good American wines were. Now they win world gold medals. They're exquisite. The same thing has slowly started in the caviar industry."

California has made a name for its farm-raised caviar, while Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee are known for their river-caught roe. The caviar world has no industry group that tracks the domestic caviar retail market values. Individual dealers' estimates differ substantially -- from $12 million to $25 million annually. Many say their sales have jumped anywhere from 20 to 50 percent in the last five years.

Shovelnose from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers produce a shimmering black "hackleback." Paddlefish, not sturgeons but caviar-producing fish also native to the Midwestern river systems, yield pearly gray "spoonbill." The processing method for each is similar. Curers slash open a fish's belly and remove an egg sack, then massage it over a metal screen, like a sieve, to separate the eggs from their outer membrane. The eggs are rinsed and cured with salt, then stored at approximately 28 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ron Hall fishes any day the water level looks right.
Jennifer Silverberg
Ron Hall fishes any day the water level looks right.
Someone has already removed the eggs from this beached sturgeon.
Jennifer Silverberg
Someone has already removed the eggs from this beached sturgeon.

The retail price for an ounce of hackleback or spoonbill varies from $15 at Bob's Seafood in St. Louis to $38 at Chicago's Collins Caviar -- a discrepancy reflecting St. Louis' curious ignorance of the phenomenon. Most local chefs haven't tried Missouri or Mississippi river caviars, while nationally acclaimed restaurants, like Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, have become converts. "It's great because it's local, it's got some relevance in the Midwest, and we think it's good," says Charlie Trotter's executive chef, Matthias Merges.

The best hackleback and paddlefish have buttery, nutty tastes. "When I'm grading caviar, I only taste one or two eggs," says Rod Mitchell, owner of prominent caviar outpost Browne Trading Co. in Portland, Maine. "You can tell quickly. I just put it onto my tongue, and I crush it to the roof of my mouth." The firm egg should pop when it separates, he says.

And how does one cure fine caviar?

"That," teases Mitchell, "is the secret of the one who makes it."

"In this industry, there's not a lot of people with scruples," explains Bill Dugan, owner of the Fishguy Market in Chicago. "People will steal your resources."

Equally evasive, Mats Engstrom, owner of California-based Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, concludes simply: "It's a war out there."

Ron Hall planned to trawl for catfish when he bought a fishing license eight years ago. He'd soon learn, though, that sturgeon was the sure-fire money-maker. "Before that, I didn't know there was a sturgeon in the world," he marvels.

Hall's early days were confusing. A fisherman's relationships with buyers are informal and shifting, he says. Contracts are never signed, prices change constantly, and cash is the primary currency, leaving little or no paper trail. Misunderstandings and mistrust between "partners" can ensue swiftly. Hall saw several short-term alliances sour before he found a long-term partnership -- typical of the caviar world's fly-by-night associations.

It was the late 1990s. Hall says local seafood purveyors were pooh-poohing Missouri caviar, so he set his sights on one of the largest luxury markets: New York City. Hall's then-partner (with whom he later had a falling out) placed a cold call to Caspian Star Caviar, which happened to be the nation's largest dealer. He arranged a somewhat mysterious rendezvous with a company representative that would prove serendipitous.

Toting eight-pound buckets of his best hackleback and spoonbill, Hall flew east for a daylong trip. He was met at the airport by a Caspian Star agent and whisked to a Brooklyn warehouse. There, several people, framed by enormous walk-in freezers, stood over tables, packing tins of caviar. Hall says the concrete building looked like "a bomb shelter."

It was there that Arkady Panchernikov, a Russian immigrant and company owner, sampled Hall's caviars and exclaimed, "It's perfect. Don't change it." The men decided on a price and finished their fortuitous meeting over celebratory sirloins at a Big Apple steakhouse.

Panchernikov began regularly placing phone orders with Hall's fish house in Center, Missouri, and thousands of cadet-blue caviar tins left via Federal Express for New York. Hall cured as much as 7,000 pounds a year. He was told that his roe was resold to cruise ships, airlines and restaurants. The caviar was never labeled "Hackleback," "Spoonbill" or "From Missouri" -- simply "Caviar."

Within a year's time, Hall began buying eggs from other Missouri fishermen to meet Panchernikov's burgeoning demand. Hall befriended a regular supplier, 39-year-old Cliff Rost, of Morrison, Missouri.

Rost is a lean, nimble chap who, like Hall, has tackled various manual trades but relishes most the rush of river air on his face and the grandeur of swooping eagles. The men shared extroverted personalities and the gift of gab. They also shared fishing supplies and occasionally took to the river together. Their wives, Phyllis Hall and Kathy Rost, became chummy. The Halls regularly entertained the Rosts over television game shows and homemade wine.

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