NEW YORK - It is evening at Daniel, the New York restaurant of French chef Daniel Boulud on the Upper East Side, which has three Michelin stars. A couple sitting at the bar tastes the caviar. "Fantastic. Simply fantastic," they say. Even the price - $470 for 50 grams of highest-quality caviar - doesn't spoil the taste for them. New York diners are prepared to pay generously for good raw ingredients.
What the couple and the other guests at the prestigious restaurant don't know is that this fine and costly caviar comes from Israel. "We started serving Israeli caviar at the restaurant four or five years ago and since then it has only improved. And today it is the best there is on the market," says Jean Francois Bruel, the chef at Daniel. "The quality of Israeli caviar really is excellent. The grain is very firm and the flavor is excellent. Unlike many kinds of caviar, Israeli caviar doesn't have an aftertaste - in my opinion because it is raised in especially clean water."
Daniel is not the only respected restaurant that has discovered the wonders of Israeli caviar. "All the chefs and buyers who specialize in fine food appreciate its quality," says Rod Browne-Mitchell, owner of the Browne Trading Company, a purveyor of high-quality fish and seafood that has been distributing Israeli caviar in the United States for 10 years now.
Eric Ripert, the chef and proprietor of the most important fish restaurant in New York today, Le Bernardin, echoes the compliment. "The Israeli caviar is the best there is today on the market," declares Ripert, whose restaurant has not only been awarded three Michelin stars but also has held the top spot on the list of popular New York restaurants in the Zagat guide, the city's most important food guidebook. "There is some not bad caviar on the market," adds Ripert. "The Chinese have good caviar but the quality of it is not consistent. Germany and Italy have pretty good caviar and there are also products from France and the United States, but what comes from Israel is the nearest thing to the top."
The "top" caviar, in case you were wondering, is none other than Iranian caviar. "But," says Ripert, "the sturgeon that grow in the Caspian Sea are in danger of extinction and therefore it is currently forbidden to import caviar from Iran."
Nevertheless, anyone perusing Daniel's menu would have a hard time discovering that the caviar has been sourced from Israel. "At prestigious restaurants they don't emphasize the source of the caviar - not because anyone's ashamed of its Israeli origins but because we usually don't mention its source if it originates at a fish farm and not in nature," says Bruel. Truth to tell, it is not certain that Bruel and Ripert are even able to say exactly where their caviar comes from. "It comes from some kibbutz," says Ripert, holding a fancy jar that says "Made in Israel."
From socialism to extravagance?
Ripert's "some kibbutz" - the name of which he can't recall but which has reached the pinnacle of the New York culinary scene - is Kibbutz Dan in the Upper Galilee, the owner of the Caviar Galilee company under the brand name Karat Caviar. The company that reigns at elite restaurants in the Big Apple, incidentally, employs only eight workers.
How did it happen that the veteran, 73-year-old, socialist kibbutz founded by the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement (which has in the meantime been privatized ) is producing one of the most capitalist and extravagant delicacies in the world? "Earning a living isn't an obscenity. We have to earn a living like anyone else," says Yigal Ben Tzvi, the director of Caviar Galilee, who has 35 years of experience in raising fish. "Today the socialism here is more within the kibbutz, though not socialism the way it was 20 years ago. Outwardly we play the capitalist game."
Ben Tzvi relates that they have been working on the sturgeon farming project at the kibbutz for nearly 15 years. "We raised trout in the Dan springs but because of the competition in Israel we wanted to branch out into other areas. So we raised eels and salmon but they didn't take well to the conditions - and then along came the idea of raising sturgeon, intended for immigrants from Russia who were accustomed to eating this fish," relates Ben Tzvi. In 1998 the kibbutz purchased sturgeon eggs of the osetra species and began raising them for food.
Four years later, in 2002, Ben Tzvi and his colleagues noticed that international caviar prices were on the rise. They already had sturgeon and all that remained was to change the aim of raising them - from whole fish for consumption to laying eggs for caviar. Or, as Ben Tzvi says, "We put two and two together and we made the decision to go with the caviar. We started sorting males and females. We sold the males for their meat and we keep raising the females until about the age of 10, until the caviar becomes of good quality."
This was without a doubt a wise business decision. The sturgeon that live in the area of the Caspian Sea, which yield the best caviar, are now on the verge of extinction and there are very strict fishing quotas in the five countries on its shores. Russia, for example, has voluntarily prohibited the catching of sturgeon in order to save the remaining fish population. There is still some illegal fishing but the quantities are very small.
"In recent years there has been a revolution in the caviar market," says Ben Tzvi. "Seven years ago 95 percent of the caviar in the world came from the Caspian Sea and 5 percent from fish farms, and today the proportions are reversed. Ninety percent comes from farms and 10 percent from nature." In these circumstances, the fish eggs from the sturgeon in the pools at Kibbutz Dan are in demand worldwide. One third of the kibbutz's caviar is destined for the American market and the rest is divided among Europe, Russia, Japan, Singapore and Canada. In 2011 the kibbutz sold 3,000 kilograms of caviar and this year it is expecting to sell 4,000 kilos. "Every year we plan to increase production by 1,000 kilos until we reach 8,000 kilos annually," says Ben Tzvi. "True, we had years when we didn't make any money but today we are earning well - in 2011 we took in NIS 12 million."
Beyond that they would prefer to continue to export caviar quietly at Kibbutz Dan, under the media radar. To date, incidentally, they have not received any offers to buy the company or to enter into partnerships, despite the commercial success.
The rabbinate makes waves
What, in fact, makes Kibbutz Dan caviar so superior?
Ben Tzvi: "At fish farms in the United States they produce caviar from the white sturgeon whereas our sturgeon is of the osetra species, which came from the Caspian Sea. It is a purebred fish. This is not a simple task. It's necessary to tend the female for 10 years until she reaches maturity. We raise the fish in smallish concrete pools of no more than 300 square meters. We change the water twice a day. One of our advantages is that we raise the fish in very good water from the Dan springs. There are farms abroad where they raise the fish in water that isn't clean or is recycled and this affects the flavor of the fish and the caviar."
Why don't the Americans, for example, import the fish and produce the caviar themselves?
"It is forbidden to bring fish from outside the country into the United States. They are trying to preserve their ecology: There have already been cases in which fish have been brought from one country to another and the foreign fish preyed on and wiped out the local fish. Also, if you have fish in a lake, a bird can take one fish and drop it into a stream or a river and the whole ecological balance will change. This is something the Americans and other countries are trying to avoid."
And aren't they afraid of this in Israel?
"Since in Israel there are no sturgeons in nature, there is no fear that ours will compete with them. But we have been required to install means such as nets to prevent sturgeon from escaping into the streams."
Despite their caviar's commercial success abroad, the members of Kibbutz Dan do not get to taste it. It is not available on the kibbutz for members or their guests to buy. "We direct all our product to export - that is the big market for caviar. But the truth is we also have a problem selling in Israel," says Ben Tzvi. "We have a large trout farm. The rabbinical authorities have threatened that if we sell nonkosher fish or caviar in Israel they will take the kashrut certificate away from the trout. It's simply blackmail. We have acceded to them because we have no alternative. The idea here is that if you, as a Jew, sell something nonkosher to another Jew then you are an outcast."
But maybe even without the rabbinate's sanctions there isn't a market for the kibbutzniks' high-quality caviar in Israel. "There is no demand for this product," says Aviv Moshe, chef of Tel Aviv's prestigious Messa restaurant, when asked why he does not serve caviar there.
Shalom Maharovsky, owner of the Mul-Yam restaurant at Tel Aviv Port, agrees: "Even if I were able to buy the Kibbutz Dan product I wouldn't. One hundred euros per kilo? I don't have clients for that. I believe that they could sell to private clients, but not to restaurants."
As befits his status, we shall grant chef Ripert the right to have the last word on the matter: "I formed my opinion of the excellent Israeli caviar after very many years of experience and after having eaten a huge amount of caviar. I taste every jar that comes into the restaurant because the product is so expensive and we cannot compromise in this matter."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now