Caldwell County caviar and sturgeon spread across the country

Mar. 06, 2013 @ 06:07 PM

Go to a fancy restaurant in New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles and spread caviar on a cracker or sink your knife into grilled sturgeon, and you might have traveled a long way just to eat a Caldwell County native.

A nondescript cluster of red buildings in Happy Valley houses Atlantic Caviar & Sturgeon Company, a farm that this year will process about 3,000 sturgeons.

The company’s product list is simple, just two foods. There’s the sturgeon meat, of course: smooth cuts with a taste more like pork than catfish. But the real delicacy is the caviar, or eggs, from three species of sturgeon: Atlantic, Russian and Siberian.

“It tastes like the ocean – like taking a bite of the ocean,” Elisabeth Wall said Wednesday, spooning up a bite of black, beady caviar.

Wall handles media, marketing and sales for the farm, which was founded in early 2000. The first shipment of fish came in 2006, and they were harvested in 2012.

Since then, the farm has developed a lengthy list of clients. Some chefs buy directly, but the caviar especially is sold mostly through distributors – meaning you’ll find some Caldwell County food being sold in almost any major U.S. city you visit.

“Any place that’s buying fine caviar is probably buying mine,” Wall said.

Atlantic’s caviar will also be on the menu at a National Aquarium dinner in Washington, D.C., on April 24 as part of a series showcasing sustainable seafood options.

For Atlantic, sustainability mostly comes down to a simple paradigm: The desire to farm fish at a consistently high volume.

“If we’re going to eat all this stuff, then we better get good at farming fish,” Wall said. “We can’t keep depleting it.”

Atlantic operates with only four full-time employees, all of whom work to eliminate as much waste as possible. Nearly every part of the fish is used – Wall is even working on a plan to make jewelry from the scutes, the bony dorsal ridges that line sturgeons’ backs.

The company works to be unobtrusive locally, too. The farm in Happy Valley isn’t marked by any signs; some people don’t even know it’s there. It doesn’t send up smoke or fishy smells.

That was important to the Happy Valley natives who founded the company. Joe Doll, Bill White, Ralph Reese and Louis Pugh were retirees looking for their next adventure, and they had the resources to make it something big.

Years before, Doll had heard about the rapid depletion of wild sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Russia and Iran, among other nations. The Russian sturgeon, in fact, is endangered in the wild. So there it was, the idea: a sturgeon farm in the foothills of North Carolina.

Everyone tried to talk them out of it, Wall said. Only a handful of sturgeon farms existed. Why couldn’t they try something simple, like tilapia, a popular food fish that's easy to farm?

“But Bill was a scientist, and Joe loves a challenge,” she said. “So they decided to do it.”

Now, on a dead-quiet road off U.S. 268, live sturgeon swim in giant drums of water. They start out looking like tadpoles in the nursery. Then they grow into big, bony fish, and employees have to place nets over the water – grown sturgeon leap from the water, and in the ocean they have been known to leap onto sailboats.

They’re docile fish, though, and they make less noise than you’d expect. The cavernous rooms where they’re raised are quiet save for the occasional splash and the hum of machinery.

Meat and caviar from Atlantic can be found in restaurants as close as Blowing Rock and as far away as California.

But it all starts in Caldwell County, where thousands of fish are circling, circling, circling quietly under the lights.