Set for the holidays. Except for champagne

December 19, 2015

Arkansas' own caviar. We got class.

Arkansas’ own caviar. We got class.

See this? This is celebration. This is excess. This is, well, about the best thing to ever come out of a river in Arkansas.

This is fresh White River hackleback sturgeon caviar, which, 24 hours before this photo was taken, was swimming around inside a mama fish up near Georgetown. And while it may not be Caspian Sea beluga quality, it’s a damn sight closer to home and less expensive, and to my plebian tastes, pretty doggoned good.

The White River traverses Arkansas from its northwest corner almost all the way to its southeast corner, emptying into the Arkansas River just above Rosedale. In the Ozarks, it’s a premier trout stream, particularly in the tailwaters below the dams that create Beaver, Table Rock, Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes. But up just above Newport, it tumbles down out of the hills and into the flatlands, where it becomes a broad, sluggish Delta channel, inhabited by paddlefish (spoonbill) and other catfish, buffalo, gar and sturgeon. From there it ambles down through Augusta, DesArc, DeValls Bluff, Clarendon, and through the White River National Wildlife Refuge.

About halfway between Augusta and DesArc, it flows past Georgetown, home of the Georgetown One-Stop, known as one of the finest purveyors of river catfish in the state. That’s where my mama fish was swimming when she met her demise, according to Mr. Jesse George, owner of George’s Fish Market in Marvell, Arkansas, who processes somewhere near 5,000 pounds of caviar a year during its short season — from about two weeks before Thanksgiving to about two weeks after the New Year, depending on the weather and the moon signs and other arcane indicators.

Mr. George doesn’t sell caviar on a retail basis, much. He ships to major national and international caviar marketers (who mark the product up 100 percent or more), or to chefs and dealers who have been doing business with him for a long time. But if you betake yourself to Marvell (the birthplace of the late, legendary Levon Helm, if you didn’t know that), show up at his market and look hopeful, he might take pity on you and sell you some.

He’d bought hackleback and spoonbill both from some commercial fishermen the evening before, processed the eggs (screening, washing, salting) that morning, and was about to leave for lunch when I caught him about 1 p.m. He obligingly went back inside, opened his chiller that holds the fresh eggs at 28 degrees (they won’t freeze, due to the natural oils and added salt) until they either get purchased/shipped fresh, or frozen for later shipment.

I looked in the chiller. Must have been 100 pounds of plastic tubs of caviar in there. I could feel my eyes glazing over.

“You want hackleback or paddlefish? I’ll get you some hackleback. I like that better,” Mr. George told me.

He opened a tub. The glistening black eggs, about the size of mustard seeds, were mounded up so as not to allow any air space, which makes the caviar degrade faster. He proffered a box of white plastic picnic spoons. I took one, scooped up a bit, and tasted.

And very nearly swooned.

You know how that brine around a GOOD, fresh, raw oyster tastes? That’s what we’re talking about. Salty, fresh, little pops of flavor as the eggs burst on your tongue and between your teeth. No fishy taste at all. Just…grand.

“Yes, sir. That’s what I want.”

“It’s $190 a pound.” (That, by the way, is not a half bad price. Amazon has American wild hackleback for $38 for a two-ounce jar. It is, obviously, not as fresh as what I got. Nor as local.)

I had not come prepared to buy a pound of caviar. How about a half-pound? Yes, said Mr. George, that would work.

He weighed out eight ounces into a smaller tub for me, then put that tub in a Gladware container he filled with ice to keep it cold on the way home. Then he gave me a quick tutorial on how to freeze it — you can’t keep it fresh in the fridge for more than a week — put plastic on top or fill the container very full, so there’s no air space next to the caviar.

Yes, that's my AGC's spoon. I don't have any other non-metal spoons. Deal with it.

Yes, that’s my AGC’s spoon. I don’t have any other non-metal spoons. Deal with it.

I stopped by the grocery and got some little four-ounce containers, which I used for two ounces each of caviar, topped with a bit of plastic wrap, lid on, and into the freezer. One will be opened Christmas; one New Year’s; and one when the Memphis Guinea Pig visits. I’ll keep the final one for some kind of major celebration.

I’m thinking Christmas morning will be latkes, and eggs with smoked salmon and caviar; Christmas dinner will include deviled eggs and caviar. New Year’s will be blinis and caviar. Also found a recipe for making little parmegiano cheese crisps to spread with creme fraiche and top with caviar.

Must make creme fraiche.

Must go to the liquor store and get Prosecco, and to the grocery for orange juice.

You ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em come on over. I may not share my caviar, but I’ll make you a mimosa.



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