Paying the Tuition With Caviar

A third-generation Southern shrimper discovers `black gold' in Atlantic sturgeon

GEORGIA has long been known for its peanuts, peaches, and Vidalia onions. Now the state often described as the heart of the Old South is becoming known for a new product - caviar.

This coveted seafood delicacy is processed in Darien, a small coastal community about 50 miles south of Savannah.

For almost 10 years, Howell Boone, a third-generation shrimper in Darien, has been ``putting up'' caviar next to his grandfather's dock. His processing plant, located at the end of a dirt road, is an immaculate 12-by-24-foot prefab structure he and his father built.

``We've got it down pat now,'' says the wiry shrimper with a boyish grin. ``We've experimented and made lots of improvements over the years.'' Depending on the availability of the Atlantic sturgeon, he and his wife Bertha process anywhere from 1,200 to 4,000 pounds of eggs, or roe, each year.

Netting a living from the sea is a Boone family tradition. T.T. Boone, Howell's grandfather, owns the dock and a midsize seafood-packing operation. His four sons and three grandsons own 10 shrimp boats, and another grandson and two great-grandsons work as crew members.

But the caviar has become ``black gold'' for the Howell Boone branch of the clan. Boone began processing the roe to make payments on his boat when shrimp prices dropped in the early 1980s.

At first he and his younger brother, Greg, netted sturgeon for the meat, considered a delicacy when smoked. They just ``played around with the roe for a couple of years.'' Later, Howell began working with the University of Georgia Extension Service and an English seafood company to learn the art of processing.

His patience has paid off. Now, he says, ``The caviar has been a real lifesaver during the lean years and off season. It's made a big difference in how we live and pays my boys' tuition.''

Howell and Bertha pack the glistening roe in small black-and-gold tins and sell it as ``Walter's'' Caviar - an old family name.

The Darien caviar comes from the Atlantic sturgeon, the largest of the seven species of sturgeon found in North America. Fishermen, working in pairs, net the powerful fish as they swim up the Altamaha River to deposit their eggs in early spring.

Netting the long-nosed sturgeon is just the start. Howell learned quickly that preparing fine caviar involves much more than collecting the fragile eggs from the sturgeon. He tried eight different recipes, but now he uses a carefully guarded process similar to one used in Russia.

While he will not divulge his recipe, he tells of cleaning the eggs carefully and then using a micro-fine salt for the two-week curing period. He then stores the caviar in a freezer set between 27 and 29 degrees F.

One fish can be worth from $10,000 to $13,000 and yield anywhere from eight to 90 pounds of eggs. And Howell, who samples all of the caviar processed, says that each batch looks and tastes a bit different, depending on the size of the fish and where and when it's netted.

While beluga, the king of Russian caviars, can cost more than $800 a pound, Boone's caviar costs $159 a pound or $46.90 for five ounces.

Bertha assumes the role of sales representative and marketing director. She handles all orders and billing on her kitchen table. Their sons, Kevin, 14, and Bryan, 11, help pack the tins in coolers filled with plastic-foam chips and ice. And Howell's brothers, parents, and in-laws pitch in during the Christmas holidays, his busiest time.

For a while, Walter's Caviar was one of the best-kept-secrets in Georgia. But now the Boones ship from coast to coast.

Howell also sells to fine restaurants and hotels, including Atlanta's Ritz Carlton and the Cloister, a five-star coastal resort located on Georgia's Sea Island. Franz Buck, executive chef at the Cloister, says it is ``comparable to Russian caviar in texture and taste.''

And when the Democrats came to Atlanta for the National Convention in 1988, Howell and Bertha prepared over 30 pounds of caviar for a brunch hosted by the city's former mayor Andrew Young.

Howell continues to expand his product line. Last year, he processed the roe from shad, a member of the herring family that spawns in coastal rivers and streams.

He also plans to begin processing the roe from the American sturgeon, or the paddlefish, a fresh-water fish in more plentiful supply than its Atlantic cousin. The paddlefish caviar will be less expensive than the sturgeon and available when the sturgeon is out of season.

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