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On New Year’s Eve, there is nothing quite like caviar. Delicate, salty, and sophisticated, caviar — matched with champagne — is a fine way to toast the possibilities of 2006. But like most costly pleasures, the realm of caviar is getting complicated and, as a result, even more costly. As with most knotty problems, however, a D.C.-area lawyer is on the case. Caviar is becoming as precious as a quiet table in a restaurant. The intense overfishing of sturgeon in the Caspian and Black seas — for centuries, the traditional source of the world’s finest caviar — along with pollution, corruption, and poaching has caused the population of sturgeon to decline an estimated 90 percent in the past 20 years. On Sept. 30 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the import of highly prized beluga sturgeon — both the meat and its eggs, known as roe, the source of caviar. That’s good news for the sturgeon, according to Caviar Emptor, a sturgeon conservation group, because the United States imports about 60 percent of all beluga caviar. But it’s bad news for American caviar fans, because it means that beluga, which some think is the best caviar around, will be unavailable or illegal or astronomically priced (upward of $200 an ounce for beluga brought in before the ban took effect). Since beluga sturgeon take 15 years or more to mature and produce roe, that means a long dry spell for old-fashioned Russian beluga caviar. That is where Alexandria, Va., solo practitioner Robert Test enters the picture. A longtime local lawyer, Test has become a caviar aficionado, and in the month of December he can be spotted delivering tins of caviar to local gourmet and wine shops and restaurants. But Test is not delivering gifts; he’s doing some marketing for one of his legal clients, the German company United Food Technologies, which has developed a conservation-minded way to farm caviar-grade sturgeon indoors. Production is under way already in Germany, the source of the caviar Test markets locally, and he is doing the legal work involved in launching sturgeon-farming hatcheries and facilities in Maryland and Nevada. As caviar has gotten more scarce and more dear, roe from salmon and other domestic species including paddlefish have gained popularity as substitutes. But United Food, the German company, believes that Siberian sturgeon, a close cousin to the sturgeon that has produced caviar in the Caspian Sea for centuries, can now be profitably farmed and will produce caviar that is indistinguishable from the real thing. As good as it is, salmon roe just isn’t caviar. Indeed, one of Test’s 50-gram tins (about 1.7 ounces), purchased for under $70 from Fern Street Gourmet in Alexandria, yields a fine and subtle caviar. It’s of the osetra variety, with smaller and more delicate-tasting eggs than beluga. But the black-and-brown hue, the saltiness, and the slight pop when you taste it are all there. This is not an inferior substitute, by any means. And you can eat it knowing that when you do, you are not depleting the stock of sturgeon. With the process used by United Food, the fish are not killed when the roe are harvested; instead an operation described as a “mini-Caesarean” is performed, allowing the fish to produce roe again, years hence. Development takes time, because female sturgeon can take three years or more to produce roe, says Test. For its caviar, United Food breeds a freshwater sturgeon that grows to be 3 feet long and weighs 20 pounds. And it is costly, since a good percentage of the sturgeon raised — the males, obviously — will not produce roe at all. Only in the past three or four years, Test says, has the technique produced consistently high-quality roe, and supplies are still limited, which is why you won’t find it yet at chain stores like Balducci’s. What began as client service — real estate, zoning, licensing, and the like — has turned into a connoisseur’s passion for Test, not to mention what he views as a tremendous investment opportunity as the centuries-old caviar business changes dramatically. His client now has the opening, Test believes, to accelerate U.S. operations. Thus, for the past year or so, Test has been building up the local market for the German fish-farmed caviar, which is sold at Rick’s Wine & Gourmet in Alexandria in addition to Fern Street Gourmet. Customers seem to be enjoying the German caviar, says a spokesman for the Fern Street store. A dozen years ago, when Test took on United Food Technologies as a client (he also represents farmers and other agricultural businesses), he knew little about caviar. “I couldn’t tell salmon roe from trout roe,” he says. But now, Test, 57, waxes poetic about it, comparing fine caviar with fine wine. When first collected from the sturgeon, the eggs are unsalted and, to be honest, “not palatable,” says Test. What makes caviar a delicacy is the addition of salt. “Like wine, whoever is doing the blending makes the quality product. It’s been done the same way for centuries.” The roe from each fish are salted separately, to account for subtle differences. “They are live creatures, so each fish is different,” he says. Test’s caviar is labeled “malassol,” which means “little salt” — 5 percent or less. In his years representing and studying the caviar business, Test says, “I have met and heard more characters, scrupulous and unscrupulous, than you can imagine.” He includes some American importers in the unscrupulous category, some of whom have gone to prison for illegal or fraudulent caviar trafficking. The caviar trade in Eastern Europe is a subculture, he says, with more stories of corruption and organized crime than there are fish. Police and fisheries inspectors are paid to ignore the illegal fishing that goes on in front of them, and Test says the temptations are irresistible. A single beluga sturgeon can weigh a ton and produce roe that will net a fisherman $50,000, he says. “They’ve fished it to death until there’s nothing left.” To Test, though, it’s turned out to be the most interesting part of his general business practice. “I’m not sitting here drawing up contracts all day. It’s a fascinating business,” he says. “It’s a lot different from representing soybean farmers.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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