A look into caviar production in southern Chile

Kate Casey, a U.S. expat living in Puerto Montt, talks with This is Chile about the origins of her salmon caviar company Ikurasur.

“Here, you get the very best bit in the middle,” Kate Casey, says as she scoops ruby red salmon eggs into a small dish and slides them across her kitchen table. Casey, a U.S. expat, is the co-owner and founder of Ikurasur, a small company that makes caviar in southern Chile.

“Toast and butter: that’s the best way to eat caviar. That’s the quick way,” she explains. “Otherwise you make a crepe and put on some crème fresh or sour cream, chop some red onion and make a little caviar burrito. That’s delicious but that takes more time.”

We’re seated around Casey’s circular kitchen table sipping hot tea and spooning caviar and butter onto rye crackers. The broad kitchen windows overlook Casey’s farm outside of Puerto Montt in southern Chile. A playful donkey roams around the front yard and lush forests smudge the edges of the property, coating a backdrop of ocean views.

Casey has lived in Chile since 1997 and has been making caviar for a decade. While Casey began making small productions herself, her business has spawned and she now supplies the precious eggs to some of Santiago’s top restaurants and exports them around the world.

A love for salmon and their eggs

While Casey first started making caviar in 2003, her passion for salmon eggs runs much farther back.

“I was always fascinated by salmon eggs. In Alaska I used to go fishing. Whenever I would catch a female fish I’d clean it and pray; I would do this little ceremony and then I would eat the eggs like the bears did,” Casey said. “The first thing they do, is they catch the fish tear it open and eat the eggs and then they leave that fish for later and go get some more eggs.”

Casey’s love for salmon eggs comes from an even more profound fascination with salmon themselves.

“They’re the most amazing creatures. First of all they have to be born in pristine environment, they can’t be born just anywhere. In order to do that they do this journey that no one can figure out how on earth they do this. In the Yukon River they swim 2,000 miles and they do that without eating or sleeping the entire time. Talk about obsession.”

Casey passionately described the life cycle of a salmon. The newly born fish swims downstream towards the ocean. In the mouth of the river where fresh water turns to saltwater, the salmon undergoes a physiological change in order to cope with the new environment, a process that Casey compares to “a human living in the air changing to go underwater.”

From here the salmon spends years out in the ocean until some instinctual pull draws it back to its place of birth.

“And now they say, ‘Ok, something’s calling me. I have to go back to where I was born,’” Casey explained. “‘I’m in this ocean and I have to pick which river of all these rivers.’ And they figure it out. How does that work? It’s a mystery.”

As the salmon re-enter fresh water, they undergo a second physiological change. The salmon at this point make a fierce push up river, shedding their scales, jumping over waterfalls and doing whatever it takes to reach their destination.

“That’s where they revert from Doctor Jekyll to Mister Hyde because they just turn into these obsessive monsters,” Casey said.

They arrive after a perilous journey exhausted and frail, fractions of the “super athletes” that they once had once been in the open sea. Quite apt for personifying salmon, Casey described the final thrust of a salmon’s life vividly.

“They start to date on the way up. ‘Hey, what’s your name. How old are you’, I just imagine, they start to get to know each other. The males are like ‘ah she’s mine’, till they finally make it up the waterfall and they pair up,” Casey described. “And it’s just like Romeo and Juliet, they pair up they have their one and only sexual experience that just must be absolutely explosive, and that’s it, then they die.”

Ikurasur is born

By several twists of fate Casey, found herself working on a salmon farm in southern Chile. Previously she had been trained as a biologist and had worked in the salmon industry in Alaska. After an initial learning period at the salmon farm, Casey felt unchallenged and discontented with her job.

She began to perk up when observing an Alaskan company that came into southern Chile and began processing caviar, something no one in the region had done before. According to  Casey, mismanagement lead the U.S. company to retreat after one season, leaving a gaping hole in the market that seemed to call out to her.

“So I thought, if they can do it I can do it,” she recalled. “I said, OK, I have to do this: form a company. I didn’t even take a break, I was just a salmon thinking, ‘I have to do this fast.’”

With little knowledge of how to make caviar, Casey began working on batches on her own and learning from trial and error.

“What gave me courage was when I took it to the fanciest restaurant in Puerto Varas with a famous chef, and I asked him to try it. He was like, ‘Kate you need to quit that job with the salmon farm company … You need to make this, this is mortal (to die for).’”

Thanks to Chile’s streamline policies, Casey quickly and easily founded Ikurasur. A few years later when the company met with financial difficulties, she applied for a seed capital grant from Chile’s Economic Development Agency (Corfo), and successfully saved the company.

Now business is booming. Visit her website for more about Ikurasur. For caviar fanatics in Santiago, you can try her delectable eggs at Matsuri, Ichiban, Temple, Sushi Hana.

By Gwynne Hogan