FILER — The retail price for prime white sturgeon caviar often reaches $120 per ounce, and it takes up to 13 years to produce.
Still, in Linda Lemmon’s opinion, Idaho caviar has the best taste. The white sturgeon on Blind Canyon Aquaranch are raised in fresh spring water that isn’t murky or muddy. And the salted, buttery-flavored eggs are clear of any earthy, algal or fishy flavors.
Lemmon is the general manager of Idaho Springs Foods in Filer, which processes sturgeon from the family-owned farms that make up the Blind Canyon Aquaranch. It takes a little bit of art and science to manage the production of caviar for distributors and restaurants, she said.
While Idaho competes domestically with California, North Carolina and Florida, the U.S. also imports a lot of “lower-quality” caviar, too, she said.
“There is more demand than we can produce in the U.S.,” Lemmon said.
Combined, the Blind Canyon Aquaranch and Idaho Springs Foods employ 14 people. The caviar processing is seasonal, dependent on when the sturgeon spawn, with most occurring in the spring and the fall.
Gary Lemmon is the hatchery manager at Blind Canyon Aquaranch’s 11 farms that raise trout and white sturgeon. The business incorporated in 1970, but Lemmon’s father had been raising trout since the 1960s. His grandfather homesteaded in the Hagerman Valley long before then.
White sturgeon is the largest freshwater fish in North America, and it’s been farmed in the Magic Valley since the 1980s — fueled by a public-private partnership to repopulate the species in the wild. The Lemmons took on their first sturgeon in 1984. They initially processed caviar through another producer, but three years ago opened Idaho Springs Foods in Filer.
The fish are darker in color when raised in clear water that gives them more exposure to the sun, Gary Lemmon said, but their undersides are white. Unlike many fish, grown sturgeon have bony plates rather than scales. They are also more like sharks, with a skeleton that’s largely cartilage.
“The sturgeon are pretty much unchanged from when the dinosaurs lived,” Linda Lemmon said.
And raising them takes time. White sturgeon grow slowly and can’t be sexed until they are about 4 years old. At that point, most of the males are separated and sold for meat; each weighs about 18 to 35 pounds when it’s processed, Linda Lemmon said. Some of the males are kept for breeding stock.
The females can be harvested for eggs as early as 8 years old, she said, but most are closer to 13 years old. They only spawn about once every couple of years, so timing is key. If the processor waits too long, the female reabsorbs the eggs into her system.
Farmworkers scan the female fish with an ultrasound to determine the maturity of the eggs. In captivity, the spawning season is spread over a longer period of time. When they are ready to be harvested, the females can weigh upward of 100 pounds, with about 5 percent of their weight being eggs.
Inside Idaho Springs Foods, the female sturgeon are processed with utmost care. The fish’s belly is first disinfected. Using sanitized knives, one employee cuts open the belly, touching only the outside of the fish, while another worker reaches inside to remove the ovaries. The ovaries are then taken to a separate processing room, while the meat portion gets prepared for sale.
“That way we keep a separation between the raw and ready-to-eat food,” Linda Lemmon explained during a tour of the facility Oct. 18.
In the caviar room, a worker carefully removes the eggs from the surrounding fat and tissue. They are then rinsed and combined with a mix of specialized salt. Table salt can’t be used, as it’s too rough and would tear up the eggs.
The caviar is edible immediately but initially has a saltier flavor. It generally takes 30 days to three months before it’s ready to sell, she said.
Traditionally, caviar by its definition refers to the salt-cured eggs of a fish in the Acipenseridae (sturgeon) family. Idaho white sturgeon caviar is different from California white sturgeon caviar because the eggs have more color variation, Linda Lemmon said; some are browner, while others have stripes, depending on the natural variability of the fish. To keep color and taste consistent, Idaho Springs Foods doesn’t mix the eggs from individual sturgeon for sale.
Most distributors want to purchase the caviar in its original tin, she said. Idaho Springs Food imports its containers from Italy, with the largest tin holding up to 1.8 kilos of caviar.
Unfortunately for eager Idahoans, the caviar that’s produced here isn’t available locally.
“You’re not going to see it at a grocery store,” Linda Lemmon said.
That’s because caviar has to be kept at a specific temperature that’s too warm for frozen foods and too cold for refrigerated foods: 26 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Snake River Grill in Hagerman, however, keeps white sturgeon meat on its menu.
As demand for caviar remains steady, the Lemmons are looking to branch out. Gary Lemmon figures Idaho Springs Foods will expand to trout caviar sometime in the years ahead.