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Craving caviar? Look no farther than Missouri's Ozark region


Paddlefish caviar. Photograph: Ryan Schuessl 

North American paddlefish eggs have earned a reputation as an affordable supplement to the traditional source of caviar in the Caspian and Black Seas.

It’s the kind of stuff that might make purists (or tsars) cringe, but North American paddlefish eggs have earned a reputation around the world as a comparatively affordable supplement to the traditional source of caviar in the Caspian and Black seas.

The market was born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when international buyers in Asia and Europe needed to find a new source of fish eggs after overfishing drove Eurasian sturgeon to the brink of extinction.

Enter the North American paddlefish, a type of sturgeon that had already been harvested for meat and roe by US river communities for generations.

Caviar is largely judged by color, texture and taste. Beluga sturgeon produce jet-black caviar, while salmon eggs yield bright red, pearl-like eggs. Textures can range from extremely soft to hard and crunchy.

Decent paddlefish eggs yield dark grey, crisp caviar.

One ounce of top-shelf, sustainable, farm-raised paddlefish caviar from L’Osage Caviar Company in Osage Beach, Missouri, will run you around $45. The wild-caught stuff costs about $30 an ounce.

“It’s almost like trying to describe wine, but we don’t have enough words,” said Connie Cunningham, of Gosherd Valley Cottage, near Hermann, Missouri, who sells free range geese and paddlefish caviar. “It’s salty, with kind of a buttery aftertaste. And the good thing about caviar is that it has that robust flavor and can hold its own, and stand on its own, when you are using it in small quantitates, like with an appetizer.”

Much to the dismay of fishermen or private fish farmers, today it’s the state of Oklahoma’s conservation department that is the single largest producer and exporter of paddlefish caviar, shipping upward of 20,000 pounds of the salty eggs overseas each year. Profits go back into conservation and law enforcement.

You probably can’t get your hands on some of Oklahoma’s bulk product unless you’re a distributor overseas. Instead, turn to the Ozark and Appalachian fishermen still trying to wrestle a living out of their regions’ rivers and lakes.

Cunningham sells most of her caviar, which comes from a fisherman in the river town of Morrison, to accompany goose during the holidays, or with champagne to celebrate the New Year.

Standard caviar protocol – no matter the species – is to serve the jar over ice and use a mother of pearl spoon to dish the eggs out over crackers, thereby avoiding the metallic taste that comes along when the salty eggs meet silverware.

Or, for those looking to get in touch with their down-home side, saltines will do just fine.