In just under four minutes, the $150 30-g tin of Breviro caviar is gone. I have eaten it all, from a mother-of-pearl caviar spoon in a beige lunch room in the woods off St. Andrews by-the-Sea in New Brunswick. The creamy caviar tastes of sea urchin, then earth, before finishing with a wash of the Bay of Fundy—and a million years of history.
Until recently, these unctuous fish eggs hadn’t been tasted in 100 years because the stocks were so depleted. (Fishing for the sturgeon the caviar comes from became illegal almost 50 years ago.) But then, 14 years of research and patient, sustainable farming by a local outfit named Supreme Sturgeon coaxed thousands of shortnose sturgeon to maturity; last year, when the business fell into receivership, a group of biologists and entrepreneurs called Breviro Caviar took over.
Breviro Caviar became the world’s only CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) licensed captive breeding facility for Acipenser brevirostrum sturgeon, one of the rarest of the 26 species of sturgeon left worldwide. A dinosaur among fish, it dates back 200 million years (the farmed ones were created from the descendants of wild sturgeon from the Saint John River). The Acipenser brevirostrum sturgeon doesn’t exist anywhere but in the Saint John River system. Now Breviro Caviar is set to roll out globally.
At a recent dinner celebrating the St. Andrews Seafood Festival, visiting chef Michael Stadtlander and New Brunswick’s Rossmount Inn chef-owner Chris Aerni collaborated on a menu that honoured the season, regional farmers, and fishermen. A starter of Breviro smoked sturgeon was topped with the caviar and wrapped in raw local herring along with sprouts of organic watercress. Next, a scallop carpaccio was garnished with a line of Breviro caviar treated like a finishing salt. The caviar was the star, its pearls ranging in colour from golden yellow to warm brown to deep chocolate. “It has a very full flavour and nice big pearls,” says Stadtlander. “I’ve bought four cans already. My wife would like it with a bottle of champagne.”
Other top Canadian chefs who have endorsed the new caviar are Robert Clark of C Restaurant in Vancouver, Scaramouche’s Keith Froggett in Toronto, and the Food Network’s Michael Smith, who served an early batch at last year’s Winter Olympics. Stadtlander, who says the Breviro is his new favourite caviar (he doesn’t use the endangered stuff anymore), adds that he’s impressed not only by the taste, but with the purity of the product. “They have the beautiful water from the lake flowing into the creek and onto the farm.”
He’s referring to the operation at Breviro’s Chamcook flow-through facility. Bill Hogans, head of research, explains how “many years ago they had a salmon aquaculture facility here, but they shut it down and were going to bulldoze the whole place, so we rented it and moved about 20,000 shortnose sturgeon here in 2008.” The tanks here are for immature fish before they’re transferred over to the nearby Pennfield grow-out facility and processing plant.
As he is explaining the process, we walk along the gravel and boardwalk trails on the facility grounds, through a forest and up a hill under clear blue skies. The rocky riverbed we pass flows down from Chamcook Lake, the main water source for the region, which is naturally elevated 18 m from the sturgeon tanks. The water is displaced by gravity, not pumps, so no electricity is needed for this sustainable operation. There’s a constant flow-through of New Brunswick water, “that’s fresh, high-oxygen, no contaminates,” says Hogans. “Everything that’s good for growing fish is in this water.”
Once they’re big enough for the larger tanks, the sturgeon are fed a secret diet that took Hogans two years to perfect, and then they grow for an average of four to six years more before being harvested. It’s a huge time and money investment, which is what makes this Breviro caviar the high-priced luxury that it is.
In New Brunswick, chef Aerni is offering a taster of a third of an ounce for $20 at his inn. “On a spoon, on its own, is the best way to experience it,” he says.