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Readers Want to Know: Does Caviar Really Come From Lake Superior?

Caviar. Photo by Russell Habermann.

"No," if you are a purist; "Yes," if you're cavalier.

"Caviar" technically refers to the processed roe of wild sturgeons living in the Caspian or Black seas. However, the unfertilized eggs of other fish from other places are often harvested and sold as forms of caviar with descriptive labels like "golden whitefish caviar," which is a product of whitefish from Lake Superior and elsewhere.

"Lake Superior bluefin caviar" (that's löjrom to all of you Swedish shoppers out there) comes from cicoes caught off Minnesota’s North Shore. In October and November, ciscoes (a.k.a. lake herring, Coregonus artedi) congregate to spawn. During this time, Lake Superior commercial fishermen are netting tons of the tasty fish as well as harvesting a $3-per-ounce international delicacy in the form of billions of cisco eggs.

Out of the water, the netted ciscoes are put on ice until they reach shore. From the boat, the fish go to a processing facility like the unpretentious Dockside Fish Market in Grand Marais, Minnesota. There, the golden-hued roe is hand-harvested from prespawn females and weighed. The skeins of eggs are broken up and the eggs are washed and spread on a screen.

"Before we dry and salt them, we pick through the eggs by hand to get rid of blood clots and other impurities," said Dockside’s co-owner Shele Toftey.

Toftey estimates she and her husband process around 65,000 pounds of cisco caviar per year before sending most to Interlaken Fisheries, an exporter of fillets, minced fish, roes, and fish byproducts.

Interlaken quickly ships the frozen cisco caviar to Sweden and other Scandanavian countries, where homegrown löjrom is in short supply due to depleted fish stocks. A small fraction of the Lake Superior roe becomes haute cuisine in swanky New York restaurants.

The Tofteys keep some of the "Superior gold" in Grand Marais, where it is becoming more popular.

"It grows on you," said Toftey. "I think it's great. Most caviar is so salty, but this is milder."

Sea Grant staff gave bluefin caviar a try. Comments ranged from, "It's like a taste of the seashore," to "I feel like I just licked a fish."

Cisco caviar from Lake Superior can be purchased through Dockside Fish Market: http://docksidefishmarket.com/catalog.php?category=Food.

Bon appétit! Or should we say Smaklig måltid!?

Cisco, lake herring, tullibee, or bluefin? What’s in a name? Find out through the new Minnesota Sea Grant fact sheet, Cisco: Also Known as Lake Herring (F36).

By Sea Grant Staff
October 2011

Return to October 2011 Seiche

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