Caviar, Israel's Latest Weapon Against Iran

Some of the world's best caviar comes from an unlikely place.

June 8, 2012, 5:43 AM

KIBBUTZ DAN, Israel, June 8, 2012 -- The large fish are hurled from the pond into a bright yellow bin, lifted onto a cart and wheeled over to a biologist who sticks a sharp probe into their white underbellies.

"This after preparation will be very fine caviar," says Dr. Hurvitz Avshalom, inspecting the small, slimy, grayish balls on the table.

Avshalom is the resident biologist for Karat Caviar, Israel's only sturgeon farm and a growing presence in the caviar market once ruled by Russia and Israel's arch-enemy Iran. With a ban on fishing sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, all legal exported caviar these days comes from farms.

But Israel is known more for its hummus than its caviar and this traditionally socialist kibbutz in the rolling hills north of the Sea of Galilee is one of the last places you'd expect to produce a food that can retail for $2,500 per pound.

"Well you have to support yourself," explains farm manager Yigal Ben-Tzvi, who was born and raised in Kibbutz Dan. "You have to take care of the old people in the kibbutz, and the kids."

As for this small Israeli farm now taking business away from Iranian caviar producers, Ben-Tzvi does little to conceal his glee.

"It's like a joyful revenge, you know?" he chuckles.

The farm is a collection of low ponds that hold their 70,000 Osetra sturgeon. At around 12 years old, the sturgeon are pulled from the ponds to see if their eggs are ready. They're either sent off for harvesting (which is the end of their lives) or back into the ponds to mature more. At that age they're around 50 pounds and can yield around five pounds of eggs.

1n 1992, Ben-Tzvi brought back fertilized Osetra sturgeon eggs from Russia, hoping to raise sturgeon to sell their meat to the growing Russian population in Israel. A decade later, they saw a leap in the price of caviar and decided to let the sturgeon get older so they could produce eggs. This year they hope to produce four tons of caviar, with an eye on eventually grabbing 10 percent of the approximately 100-ton market for premium caviar.

"The Israeli caviar is the best there is today on the market," says Eric Ribert, chef and owner of New York's Le Bernardin restaurant, which has three Michelin stars.

"The Chinese have good caviar but the quality of it is not consistent. Germany and Italy have pretty good caviar and there are also products from France and the United States, but what comes from Israel is the nearest thing to the top," he told Israel's Haaretz newspaper.

Ben-Tzvi credits the genetics of the Caspian-originated fish and the cold, clean water they swim in for the quality. The farm is fed by the local Dan River which is a source of the Jordan River.

For all its success, Karat Caviar ironically isn't sold in Israel. Sturgeon don't have scales that can be removed by hand so they're not considered kosher and the farm can't risk losing its kosher license for the trout they also sell.

After processing, the caviar is put on a refrigerated shelf for several months to age. The finished product looks olive-green with a gold tint. Marketing director Smadar Ashkenazi has harsh words for the more common black caviar which can have a strong, salty after taste.

Karat Caviar "should be solid on the outside and then it has this popping effect in which you feel all this buttery, nutty flavor," she explains, as she does when touring around to show the caviar to chefs. "It should be firm but not too firm and it should be very light in taste."

Indeed, the caviar has a smooth, almost buttery, light salty taste. Ashkenazi says one kilogram can retail for $3,000 to $5,000 and says that despite the economic crisis, sales have continued to grow.

"You don't have to change your car or buy diamonds every year," she says, "but you can treat yourself with caviar."