Here’s the next installment of reporter Adam Mankoski’s road trip adventure: Two Guys in a Minivan.
According to Marion Mahone, a school of farm-raised, American white sturgeon are living – and producing -every woman’s fantasy.
The fantasy begins in the waters of southern Idaho’s Snake River Aquifer. Here in the Magic Valley, near Twin Falls, pure melted snowpack filters to perfection through porous ancient lava flows, creating perfect, crystal pools.
“We get the males out of there as fast as we can, and the girls are pampered for the rest of their lives,” says Marion as she dons rubber waders, preparing for a swim with “the girls.”
The pools, once dammed by southern Idaho’s early settlers, provide the ideal home for Marion’s girls. And the loving care she and her company, Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, offer them will help fulfill Marion’s personal fantasy. She is going to make the Magic Valley the world’s caviar capitol, one 2.8-millimeter golden egg at a time.
Marion, part owner, general manager, and self-described “head gopher” for Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, is as comfortable in waders as I imagine she is in formal wear. This sweet, gracious, and seductively eccentric former real estate developer clearly loves “swimming” with her girls and confesses to a trip to the farm whenever she can.
The deal for her caviar operation gave Marion the opportunity to reduce the threat to wild sturgeon and harvest mercury-, pollutant- and pesticide-free caviar. She seized it and has kept Tsar Nicoulai on the roster of players in a worldwide sustainable foods revolution.
I think she knew what she was doing. In addition to being a rubber-wader-wearing fish grower and the flashy face of a luxury product, Marion has a third dimension: She’s shrewd and seals deals the Madison Avenue way. “It was the third olive in my martini that did it,” she said of the deal she made to raise her pampered sturgeon and harvest their coveted eggs.
In the interest of keeping the farm’s location shrouded, Tsar Nicoulai Production Manager Max Wooley and Marion met us at a nearby restaurant, and led our dusty Ford Windstar through a maze of country roads. In fact, my entire visit was orchestrated, just short of blindfolding me and putting me in the trunk of Marion’s car: no advance information about the location and no photos of topographical landmarks. Such extreme measures are dictated by a global black market for caviar and drug world-style bootlegging of wild sturgeon.
But the Tsar Nicoulai girls are a million miles away, figuratively and almost literally, from the world of black-market eggs. They nap in the hot afternoon in cool pools, at the bottom of a wheat-hued valley cradled by massive, tectonically carved buttes and plateaus.
Comparing fish to cows, their lives are long. It’s approximately five years until a sturgeon can be sexed, and up to 13 years to remove her from the pond to harvest her eggs, depending on which grade of egg a female is carrying. Tsar Nicoulai never harvests more eggs than they have orders for. So in the meantime, the girls languor and dine on all of their favorites: fish meal, sardines, crayfish, snails and clams, while the Environmental Protection Agency keeps a close eye on their water quality.
Contentment must breed geniality. The girls welcomed two guys from California and their daughter (the only brave one without waders) into their aquatic Sarmatia for a wade. But if I convey nothing else from this story, make a mental note: Don’t try and get dominant with a 60-pound fish. She will win and your waders will be full of snow melt.
Instead, just stand, legs shoulder-width apart, quietly acknowledging the girls’ pith and lusty sturdiness, and these prehistoric water dwellers glide stealthily around you, sometimes surfacing to accept one arm under the belly and the other, softly under the chin. But it’s their call.
The girls changed my perception of sturgeon, just as Marion’s fantasy is to change the way we see, smell, feel and taste the girls’ precious eggs.
Taste. The crown on an otherwise perfect day with Marion and the Tsar Nicoulai girls was a taste of their prized eggs. Marion is a caviar purist. “If you get caviar with eggs and onion, run,” she warns. The eggs and the onions may be to cover something, often inferior caviar.
Marion’s favorite way is a lick of the eggs, right from her husband’s jugular, but in the absence of her husband’s neck, I opted to lick them from my hand. It’s the second-best way, according to Marion.
With no egg, onion, blini or crème fraiche in sight, I transferred a shimmering mound of jewels, with a mother-of-pearl spoon, to the crook between my thumb and forefinger, swept them with my tongue and pressed them against the roof of my mouth. Perfectly smooth, firm and briny, with just a hint of sea. Get into the moment and lick a bit from the crook of someone else’s hand. They will taste just as delicious, but completely different.
Getting into a moment is what Marion hopes her caviar inspires in her clients, many who are, figuratively and almost literally, a million miles away from the caviar’s origins in the Magic Valley of southern Idaho. But that isn’t stopping the nation’s top restaurants and chefs, like those at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, who choose Tsar Nicoulai because of their commitment to quality combined with sustainability.
Still, some folks will always be led to Tsar Nicoulai from its ad in Haute Living Magazine and other clients will continue to order from their own personal caviar representative in an office in San Francisco. After all, according to Marion, “Caviar is fun, memorable and sexy.”
I’m not sure which vagary I find more appealing: a life of crystal pools or mother-of-pearl spoons. Unrestricted imaginations aside, when I think of caviar, I will remember my swim with the girls on a hot August day, where traffic yields to tractors, in the land of every woman’s fantasy.
To learn more about Tsar Nicoulai’s commitment to sustainability or order an ounce or two of caviar for a special occasion, visit tsarnicoulai.com. Stay tuned for the next edition of “Two Guys in a Minivan,” by Adam Mankoski: “Big Surprises in Idaho’s Little Capitol.”
Adam Mankoski is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner own HawkMan Studios and are the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop. Email your NorthState weekend events to email@example.com.