Luxury and sustainability are not two words that are often paired together. Luxurious things are extravagant, over the top, and often use rare or expensive resources. Sustainability is more so associated with frugality, simplicity, and the conservation of resources. There does not seem to be a place for these things to coexist – but a startup called Optimized Foods, based in Davis, California is creating a product where these two worlds merge.
Optimized Foods has developed cultivated caviar, one of the foods that is of course, most closely associated with luxury. For those who may not know what “cultivated” means, this is a food technology process where cells are extracted from a live animal (without harming it) and then grown with particular nutrients outside the animal. These products are bio-identical to animal products but do not require the slaughter of any animals.
On top of being an expensive luxury item, caviar is not necessarily the most sustainable food. True caviar is sourced from sturgeon fish (eggs from other fish species are called roe), a massive, prehistoric fish that take anywhere from 7-15 years to mature.
At one point, the overfishing of wild sturgeon nearly led to the extinction of the species. Nowadays, most caviar is harvested from farmed sturgeon due to the global depletion of wild stocks. In 2005, the American government implemented a ban on the import of wild caviar to help protect endangered species.
The scientists at Optimized Foods work closely with California Caviar Company’s CQ Ranch, a sturgeon fish farm outside of Davis, California. Most farmed caviar are killed to harvest the eggs since live extraction processes negatively affect the final product’s taste.
However, the Optimized Foods team can extract cells from different species of sturgeon without killing the fish and determine which cell lines work best for the taste they want to achieve. The extracted cells are then grown on mycelium, the rootlike structure of mushrooms, to develop a more solid structure.
Optimized Foods hosted an intimate cultivated caviar tasting at Palihouse, a chic, modern hotel in West Hollywood. A small tasting menu highlighting the alternative caviar was served alongside sparkling sake and champagne. The three hors d’oeuvres on the tasting menu consisted of a crostini with a Cinderella pumpkin spread and parsley garnish (conventional, not cultivated), bluefin tuna and a hard-boiled quail egg, and finally, a classic blini with a dollop of goat cheese and chives.
The crostini topped with pumpkin spread and cultivated caviar was my favorite because of the contrast between the salty caviar and sweet pumpkin. I also opted to try the alternative caviar on its own to get the full experience. I appreciated the mild, briny flavor that wasn’t overwhelmingly fishy or too reminiscent of salt water. This alternative caviar didn’t have the popping texture found with some fish eggs but was buttery and melted in my mouth, which was still a very enjoyable experience.
The best part of this tasting was experiencing a product that so flawlessly connected the worlds of luxury and sustainability and knowing that no sturgeon needed to be killed in the process. Optimized Foods first plans to distribute its cultivated caviar to chefs and restaurants and sell it directly to consumers.