Spring Lake • Robert Judd was a fish out of water a year ago when he started producing caviar — one of the world’s most expensive and luxurious foods — at his small rainbow trout farm near Payson.
"I’d never even tried caviar before," admitted the owner of the century-old Spring Lake Trout Farm.
When Bowman Brown, the award-winning chef from Forage, showed an interest in buying the fresh, orange-colored roe for his Salt Lake City restaurant, Judd saw it as a way to diversify his family-owned business.
Traditionally, caviar comes from beluga sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea on the border of Russia and Iran. The species, however, is now over-fished and near extinction, prohibiting its sale in the United States. Today, American companies fill the need by producing caviar from the roe of wild and farm-raised sturgeon, salmon, whitefish, paddlefish and trout.
Extravagant, preserved caviar often can be "too salty, fishy tasting and not that great," Brown said. So when he read about a chef in Sweden who uses freshly harvested trout roe, he was intrigued and decided to float the idea past Judd.
"Robert was more than willing to give it a shot," said Brown, who was recently named a semifinalist in the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards.
Brown has used the tiny, bead-shaped eggs in a variety of ways; currently, they fill a house-made potato cracker, which is served along side pinon-wood smoked trout. He serves about two quarts — or about 15,000 eggs — to Forage customers each week.
"I always try to showcase how unique it is and present it without taking away from its delicate flavor or texture," Brown said. "If you put it in a butter sauce it would lose its magic."
Rinsed and lightly salted just before serving, the caviar surprisingly "doesn’t have the taste of fish," said Brown. "It’s more like an egg yolk."
Biting into the eggs, diners experience a "gentle pop" and then they "melt in your mouth," he said. "For most people it’s a different experience."
Producing caviar was a different experience for Judd, too.
Judd’s father, an avid fisherman who owned clothing stores in Nevada, bought the business 35 years ago on a whim. Judd was 7 at the time.
"We were in Payson trying to find a relative," Judd remembered. "We stopped for directions and found out the trout farm was for sale."
The main source of income for the Judd family from Spring Lake Trout Farm, founded in 1912, has been raising live trout to stock in reservoirs and private ponds, including those at East Canyon and Snowbird.
The family has supplemented its income by allowing the public to fish from a large pond on the property and by selling "eyed" trout eggs to hatcheries.
Judd said the farm’s future is now in selling the eyed eggs, which have been fertilized and are about halfway through the incubation. (The eggs that Judd sells as caviar are not fertilized.)
As environmental standards increase and governments crack down on overfishing, it is farmed fish — raised in hatcheries — that are satisfying the increasing demand for seafood worldwide. Because of that, "the demand for trout eggs is going through the roof," said Judd.
At least once a week he receives requests for "eyed" fish eggs from all over the world: a hatchery in Budapest asked for 50,000 eggs; businesses in Great Britain and the Middle East want 5 million eggs each.
To keep up with demand, Judd has installed new concrete ponds and he is building a new hatchery, which will allow him to triple the circulation of the fresh water coming from a nearby spring, which in turn, will increase fish and egg production.
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