The Salt
3:28 am
Wed May 30, 2012

From An Israeli Kibbutz, A High-Priced Caviar Prized By Top Chefs

Originally published on Sun June 3, 2012 8:29 am

A kibbutz in the mountains of northern Israel might seem an unlikely source for some of the world's most expensive gourmet food. But a small farming collective has built itself a lucrative business, supplying some of America's top chefs with caviar that customers pay hundreds of dollars to sample.

At Galilee Caviar in Kibbutz Dan, Israel, there are pools of sturgeon everywhere you look. The massive fish aren't much to look at — they look like a cross between a seal and a catfish. But they demand a high price — about $2,500 each, says Yigal Ben Tzvi, the owner of the company.

And each fish is a 10- to 15-year investment, he says. When we visited, it was the day Ben Tzvi began hauling these monsters out of their ponds and checking them for the quality of the caviar inside.

The fish are carefully cultivated and the females selected for osetra caviar production. The whole thing has the air of a hospital operation. The fish are reeled in by net, and then anesthetized in smaller tanks. Biologist Avshalom Hurvitz sits at a small white table, gingerly pulling back tissue with a scalpel to show us what's inside.

"These are the eggs, and they are 3 millimeters in diameter. They have a pale gray color, which is nice. I see no fat tissue here. It means that the yield of caviar will be high," Huvitz says.

As Huvitz pronounces the caviar Grade A, Ben Tzvi smiles. He's proud of the fact that chefs like Eric Ripert serve his caviar exclusively in their restaurants. Ben Tzvi says his caviar is superior because of the mountain spring water in the ponds and the purebred nature of his fish.

"The price in New York, somebody calculated, is $9,400 per kilo," Ben Tzvi says. (Gourmet shop Dean & DeLuca sells 8.8 ounces of the stuff online to the rest of us for just under a cool $1,000.)

Ben Tzvi says he never set out to become a purveyor of caviar. Kibbutz Dan was at the forefront of fish farming in the early 1980s and the 1990s. The caviar business is a subsidiary of Dan Fish Farms. But as the kibbutz shifted from its socialist structure to a privatized model, Ben Tzvi and others explored new business opportunities.

At first, they tried half a dozen fish before settling on sturgeon, imported from Russia as fertilized eggs. "For the first 10 years we grew them for meat, 'cause no one thought of caviar at that time," Ben Tzvi says.

Historically, the world's best caviar came from Russia and Iran. But overfishing of sturgeon in the Caspian and Black Seas has brought the fish to the brink of extinction, and severe quotas cap the legal sale of caviar from those countries now.

By the early 2000s, world caviar prices were rising sharply, and international authorities tried to crack down on fraud by implementing a labeling system.

Ben Tzvi decided to give farmed caviar a try. A few years later, when he started selling his product, the price doubled. Then it tripled. Now 99 percent of the world's caviar comes from fish farms like Ben Tzvi's.

But even though it's a high-priced specialty, caviar is an acquired taste. It's salty, fishy and a bit squishy in the mouth — and that describes the good kinds.

Galilee Caviar's marketing director, Smadar Ashkenazi, acknowledges that a lot of the caviar market is about branding and perception. She stands in the company's walk-in freezer with an open 8-ounce tin of caviar in front of her. There are about six different locks on the freezer door; Ashkenazi jokes it's guarded like a bank vault.

"In general, I think caviar is more about the experience of eating caviar, so it's about what it makes you feel. Unfortunately, a lot of people, they kinda fear what it's going to be like," she says.

Ben Tzvi says that was him. But naturally, now he's hooked.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now to a small farming collective in the mountains of northern Israel. A kibbutz there has built itself a lucrative business supplying some of America's top chefs with caviar that customers pay hundreds of dollars to sample. Sheera Frenkel traveled to the kibbutz where the Galilee Caviar company has its headquarters.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: Everywhere you look here there are pools of sturgeon. The massive fish look like a cross between a seal and a catfish when they poke their heads out of the water. They don't look like the kind of fish that would fetch a high price.

YIGAL BEN TZVI: Well, every fish which is swimming here is about two and a half thousand dollars. Imagine if he dies, yeah?

FRENKEL: That's Yigal Ben Tzvi, he's the owner of the Galilee Caviar Company and today's the day he begins hauling these sturgeon out of their ponds and checking them for the quality of the caviar inside. Each fish is a 10 to 15 year investment, he says, in which the sturgeon are carefully cultivated and the females selected for caviar production.

The whole thing has the air of a hospital operation. The fish are reeled in by net, and then anesthetized in smaller tanks. Biologist Avshalom Hurvitz sits at a small white table - scalpel at the ready.

AVSHALOM HURVITZ: These are the eggs. They are in 3 millimeter diameter. They have a pale gray color, which is nice. I see no fat tissue in here. It means that the yield of caviar will be high.

FRENKEL: So these would be considered Grade A Caviar?

HURVITZ: Yes, yes. This, after preparation, will be very fine caviar.

FRENKEL: As he pronounces the caviar Grade A, a smile spreads across the face of owner Yigal Ben Tzvi's. He says he's proud of the quality of his caviar, and prouder still that chefs like Eric Ripert, a world-renowned expert on seafood, will only serve Ben Tzvi's caviar in his restaurants.

TZVI: The price in New York, somebody calculated is $9,400 per kilo.

FRENKEL: Ben Tzvi says he never set out to become a purveyor of caviar. Kibbutz Dan was at the forefront of fish farming in the early 1980s and 1990s. As the kibbutz shifted from its socialist structure to a privatized model, Ben Tzvi and others explored new business opportunities. He says that they tried half a dozen fish before settling on sturgeon, imported from Russia as fertilized eggs.

TZVI: For the first 10 years we just grew them for meat, 'cause no one thought of caviar at that time.

FRENKEL: But in 2002, they noticed that the world caviar market was on a sharp incline. It had risen from a low of $200 to $400 per kilo that year alone. A few years later, when Ben Tzvi started selling his product under the Karat Caviar label the price had doubled and then tripled.

Ben Tzvi says he caught the caviar market at the right time. Historically, the world's caviar came from Russia and Iran. But overfishing of sturgeon in the Caspian and Black Seas has brought the fish to the brink of extinction, and severe quotas cap the legal sale of caviar from those countries now. Instead 99 percent of the world's caviar now comes from fish farms, like Ben Tzvi's.

Galilee Caviar's marketing director, Smadar Ashkenazi acknowledges that a lot of the caviar market is about branding and perception. She's standing in the company's walk-in freezer with an open 8-ounce tin of caviar in front of her. There are about 6 different locks on the freezer door, Ashkenazi jokes that it's guarded like a bank vault.

SMADAR ASHKENAZI. MARKETING DIRECTOR, GALILEE CAVIAR COMPANY: In general, I think caviar is more like it's about the experience of eating caviar. And so it's about what it makes you feel. Unfortunately, a lot of people they kind of fear what it's going to be like.

FRENKEL: That seemed to be the case with Ben Tzvi. His first taste of caviar left him less than enthralled.

TZVI: Oh, actually it was too salty for me, I didn't know this product. But now where - when I got used to it, I really like it.

FRENKEL: It helps, he adds, that he's got access to some of the best.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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