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.