In the Collins Caviar warehouse at Adams and Sangamon, Rachel Collins stands in a walk-in freezer surrounded by her company's assets: bags and jars of glistening fish roe, stacked neatly on shelves. It's a chilly 10 degrees, so a very quick inventory commences: "This is the raw salmon roe, straight from the fishery, packed and coded. This is how the sturgeon is coming in from my guys in the field. This is the tobikko, private label. Creme spreads in all their glory; there are two flavors." Outside, Collins explains the severe temperature. "If it's not cold enough, your product ages and gets freezer burn."
Collins knows how to treat caviar: she and her mother, Carolyn Collins, have been making it for more than 20 years. They founded Collins Caviar in 1983, and today they have customers all over the U.S. and a product line that includes the roes of American hackleback sturgeon, paddlefish, salmon, trout, whitefish, and bowfin, as well as smoked and flavor-infused specialty caviars.
Thanks to Italian immigrant grandparents, Rachel's childhood in Crystal Lake was "all about food, all the time," she says. Her mother's family ran a grocery store and later a restaurant, and when commerce closed down for the day the culinary activities continued. The three generations foraged together. "My grandfather picked wild mushrooms and dandelions in the summer for salad. And he would go out and shoot squirrels, and he would make squirrel cacciatore, which was really wonderful--served over polenta, of course."
During Rachel's high school years, Carolyn befriended the owners of several Lake Michigan charter boats. "The best fishing was during spawning season, so we'd be catching this huge, beautiful Lake Michigan salmon and trout just full of roe," Rachel recalls. "Carolyn got very passionate and said, 'I don't want to throw this away; I bet I can figure out how to make caviar.'" Through trial and error, the Collins women struck upon a recipe.
It wasn't until Rachel was at Roosevelt University studying flute that Carolyn came up with the idea of transforming their experiments into a business and recruited her daughter as her partner. They decided to specialize in American caviar instead of importing the elite and pricey Caspian Sea sturgeon roe. "There are many old, venerable (and not-so-venerable) caviar houses throughout Europe and the States," says Rachel. "It's a boys club, which in my opinion is a disadvantage." There was also the decline in the Caspian's sturgeon population to consider: "We try to lead relatively green lives ourselves, and we weren't going to get involved in anything that was injurious to an endangered species." The company cultivates relationships with reputable roe suppliers in the Great Lakes, Idaho, and Canada, including some fourth-generation family fishermen.
Domestic sturgeon is included in the Collins portfolio. But it's other fish that have allowed mother and daughter to exercise the greatest creativity. The roes of the salmonoid species--salmon and trout--are processed using the unique methods developed in the Collins home kitchen. "Nobody makes caviar in this manner anymore because it's too labor-intensive and it's too expensive," Rachel says.
Most commercial producers send machines called agitators, which can handle hundreds of pounds of salmon roe at a time, directly to fishing sites, where they beat the eggs off the skein (the membrane sac), add plenty of salt to toughen the berries, and freeze the finished product. Collins Caviar uses no machinery. At the fishery, the roe is taken in the skein, glazed (quickly dipped in icy water) to give it an extra layer of protection, and blast-frozen. Once a week in Chicago, skeins are thawed and laid out on boards, where each individual berry is hand cut. The roe is rinsed in a light brine, drained, salted, and cured for 24 hours. Then, Collins says, "it's out on an airplane, in a FedEx box, being bicycled madly across the Loop."
Cold-smoked caviars using midwestern apple, hickory, and maple are a company specialty. Perhaps the most noteworthy Collins innovation, flavor-infused caviar, uses abundant American whitefish roe. Compared with the first whitefish caviars to come to market in the 70s, these are more delicate in texture, with lower salt content. The first two varieties they developed were flavored with Absolut Peppar and Citron vodkas--"We have a letter from the king of Sweden on file," Rachel says. The company quickly branched into private-label flavored products developed with and for chefs. A vanilla caviar for John Bubala was among the early successes; they also did a Cajun caviar with Jimmy Bannos.
Several years ago Rachel introduced caviar "creme" spreads--blends of caviar and cream cheese--and expanded manufacturing of spreads and compound butters is in the works. Meanwhile, successful exports to Mexico have led to the idea of opening the next logical market: Canada. "It's almost like there's only so much caviar you can sell in this country," Collins says.
She recalls her reaction when her mother once declared, "'I want caviar in every home in America; it's easy and simple. Everyone can eat it.' Well, I tell you what--everybody doesn't want to eat it. But we want to take the elitism out of it. We encourage caviar as a component in a recipe, to use it more frequently. And because it's so flavorful, it can stand up. It's nice, delicious, special, upscale food--yes. But still relatively affordable."
Collins Caviar, open to the public by appointment only, is at 925 W. Jackson, 312-226-0345.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.