From Lake Superior to a caviar spoon
Monday, December 1, 2003
Pioneer Press (Minnesota, US) by Richard Chin
Another Thanksgiving has passed, another December has arrived, which means, of course, another Lake Superior caviar season is coming to a close in Minnesota.
Don't know what we're talking about? Didn't know that in the last couple of months, tons of eggs got pulled out of fish that got pulled out of the big Gitchee Gumee?
Millions, heck, billions of eggs — roe from lake herring, or Coregonus artedii, to be precise — just got harvested and processed on the shores of the Minnesota side of the Shining Big Sea Water.
Only a little bit gets eaten here. Some gets shipped to fancy restaurants in New York City. The majority is frozen and trucked to a fishery in Iowa, which in turn ships it overseas, bound for fish-egg-hungry gullets in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, where, apparently, they can't get enough of the teeny, salty, coral-orange stuff. That's globalization for you.
For years, North Shore fishermen have harvested eggs out of lake herring even though there isn't a big local demand for it.
"Here? No, just a few of the fishermen eat it, a little bit," said Dick Eckel, who is in the fish-processing business in Grand Marais. "It isn't bad."
Apparently, they have a higher opinion of it in Sweden, which has turned to the Great Lakes to supplement its domestic supplies of freshwater roe called löjrom.
"They just go nuts for this stuff," said John Becker, store manager of Morey's Fish House, a Brainerd-area company that exports the roe to Sweden, Finland and Norway, where local roe-producing fish have been hard to find.
Becker said the food magazine Saveur recently ordered a sample, apparently for an article. Another U.S. customer is Ulrika's, a Swedish restaurant in Manhattan.
"We sell probably 100 kilos a year to them," he said.
"In Sweden, it's considered a delicacy. I even consider it better than a Russian caviar," said Ulrika's owner and chef, Ulrika Bengtsson, who used to be the executive chef at the Swedish consulate general in New York. "I like the texture of the eggs more. It has a little crunchiness.
"I know for a fact that in Sweden it's very difficult to find löjrom, and it's very expensive,'' Bengtsson said, "but here I can get it all the time."
Lake herring is a staple of North Shore restaurants that cater to summertime tourists. But in recent years, it's the eggs that have driven the demand for the fish because of the Scandinavian taste for roe and the lack of roe fish stocks in Europe.
"They basically overfished their stocks, and they're now seeking other sources of roe because it's very popular there," said Gary Cholwek, a biological technician with the Lake Superior biological station of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Last year, for example, the bulk of the 376,000 pounds of lake herring harvested by nontribal Minnesota fishermen in Lake Superior was caught in October and November, when the roe is suitable for processing. Canadian and Wisconsin fisherman and fisheries also harvest lake herring roe out of Lake Superior.
"It's a valuable commercial species for its flesh as well as its roe, although right now, it's more valued for its roe," said Cholwek.
That's led to some concern by fisheries management officials about overfishing of herring stocks in the lake.
"It's something that needs to be watched very closely," Cholwek said.
But it isn't a critical problem so far, said Steven Geving, a fisheries specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"Currently, the stocks are pretty decent," he said. "There are good numbers, but it doesn't mean we can open it wide open."
PRODUCT OF U.S.A.
Right now, the herring roe capital of Minnesota is Grand Marais, where a new processing operation was started this fall by the owners of the Dockside Fish Market, which was hired to take over the work that used to be done at the Morey's company.
Dockside co-owner Shele Toftey said she and about 12 full-time workers plus some after-school help have been working seven days a week for the past couple of months scooping tons of eggs out of freshly caught herring, weighing them, washing them, draining them, putting them through industrial-size mixing and filtering machines, picking out blood specks and other debris by hand and salting the eggs.
In the final step, eggs that were swimming in fish that were swimming in Lake Superior just the day before are spooned into 1-kilogram plastic tubs labeled löjrom and "Product of U.S.A."
The eggs are sent to Spirit Lake, Iowa, home of Stoller Fisheries, which does the exporting to Scandinavia. The rest of the herring end up in Iowa, too, where a lot of it is turned into gefilte fish.
Toftey said she has the capacity to process about 70,000 pounds of eggs a season, but this year's harvest will be less because catches are down due to bad weather on the lake.
Toftey is trying to sell some of the eggs locally in Dockside's retail market. She also has been getting some nibbles from local restaurants and resorts interested in dishing up the roe. She suggests serving it on a cracker, baked potato or bagel.
Bengtsson said she serves it with sour cream, onion and lemon on miniature toast, avocados or potato pancakes.
PRICE IS RIGHT
Things get a little more basic at the deer camp up north, according to Jeff Bodin, one of the owners of Bodin Fisheries in Bayfield, Wis., which also processes lake herring roe. He puts a pound of the eggs on the table. Then "just put out Ritz crackers and dip it out."
"Like lumpy butter," said Dockside worker Jon Kettunen.
But an online review by food writer David Rosengarten said the Minnesota-produced roe is "slightly briny, slightly fishy (in a good way)."
It doesn't compare with the depth of flavor offered by Caspian Sea caviar, according to Rosengarten.
"But put 'em, as I recently did, on warm slices of new potatoes, with sour cream, chopped purple onion and fresh dill — and you've got a killer appetizer for a remarkably low price!"
It is hard to find a cheaper fish egg.
Coastal Seafoods general manager Tim Lauer sells Russian beluga caviar for $85 an ounce. Flying fish roe, popular in Japanese cuisine, goes for $40 an ounce. Caviar from domestically farmed osetra sturgeon costs $35 an ounce. Bowfin roe, sometimes called Cajun caviar because it's produced in Louisiana, costs $8 an ounce.
But at Coastal, an ounce of Minnesota Lake Superior caviar will only set you back $2.99.