Food & Drink

Americans Can Eat Caviar Guilt-Free — None Of It Comes From Russia

Punishments against Putin’s war are now clamping down on products like caviar and vodka that once were considered Russian delicacies in the U.S. but went dosvedanya — goodbye — a long time ago.

In the past 20 years on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, Michelin-starred Caviar Russe has become known for spreads fit for an oligarch.

Amid government bans on Russian imports, however, that reputation is now coming back to bite the family that owns the restaurant. They actually immigrated from Ukraine. Their caviar never came from Russia. It comes from Germany.

Americans “can eat caviar guilt-free,” says Ilya Panchernikov, the second-generation managing director of Caviar Russe, who was born in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, now occupied by Russian troops. “The fish don’t have passports. It’s just a fish.”

In fact, no caviar in America comes from Russia. Government sanctions against the salty, chic fish eggs are more performative than anything. Caviar imported from Russia worldwide has dropped to a tiny fraction of the global volume it commanded during the 1990s.

That’s because Russia popularized caviar from wild sturgeon, often the beluga species that swam in the Caspian and Black seas. Fishermen cut out the roe from the sturgeon and often tossed the fish back in the water to die. Both Russia and Iran in particular became huge producers of expensive caviar, but after the sturgeon population fell 30%, producing caviar from the fish was banned in the early 2000s. Experts suggest that 2008 was the last time Russian caviar was served in America.

“Russia hasn’t exported any caviar for years and years,” said caviar entrepreneur Bill Holst. The Russians “consume everything they produce, and most of the caviar they produce is injected with hormones and not legal to sell in the U.S. and Europe.”

Seafood from Russia is broadly facing sanctions from countries looking to punish Russia for its unprovoked attack on Ukraine. In 2021, the U.S. imported $1.2 billion worth of seafood from Russia, mostly pollock that’s sold at fast-food chains and smaller fish used for feed at fish farms. Not one speck of that was caviar.

Most high-quality caviar is now produced in farms located across Europe in Hungary, Italy, Greece and Germany, as well as stateside, from California to Kentucky. Costco sources its Osetra caviar from a Bulgarian farm in the Black Sea.

The largest supply of caviar in the world comes from one farm in China. That operation, formally called Hangzhou Qiandaohu Xunlong Sci-Tech, accounts for 35% of global sales. Its tins are shipped overnight around the world to 23 countries, including 22 Michelin-starred restaurants in France and five in New York. The company also supplies caviar for a lot of tins sold under brands like Petrossian, Caviar House and celebrity chef Thomas Keller’s Regiis Ova.

Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has eaten the Chinese-produced caviar at least twice — once at the 2016 G20 Summit in Hangzhou, where the caviar farm is located, and the other during a one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Russia hasn’t exported any caviar for years and years.”

Bill Holst

The Chinese farm was actually set up by Holst, a third-generation corn farmer based in Wisconsin. Chinese investors approached Holst, who had already turned around failing caviar farms in Hungary and Germany sold under the brand Desietra, to help them transform a small sturgeon farm in the country into China’s first caviar operation. Holst became the largest and sole American shareholder before selling his remaining stake in 2018.

Holst reinvested the profit in three farms in France, Italy and Germany. His caviar ranges from $400 a pound to $2,000 a pound. Even with the rising price of transportation, fuel and labor, the future of the caviar business, he said, is bright. “Demand for caviar is very high,” he said. “The highest in years.”

Holst now says Chinese caviar may not be as guilt-free as it seems, given Xi’s alliance with Russia. “Buy from our allies in Europe and the U.S.,” he said. “Do not buy Chinese caviar.”

At Caviar Russe, whose name literally means “Russian caviar,” Panchernikov is trying hard to make sure his customers know there’s no actual Russian caviar on the premises.

“I’m not Russian, I’m Ukrainian,” he told Forbes. “The caviar didn’t do anything to anybody and we want people to continue to celebrate with caviar.”


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