meet the farmer

TESTING THE WATERS

Passmore Ranch dives in with an unlikely crop.

WRITTEN BY VANESSA RICHARDSON
PHOTOS BY DEBBIE CUNNINGHAM

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Michael Passmore is one of the premier sustainable fish farmers in America.
Here he stands on his 86-acre property in Sloughhouse with his dog, Mattis

Michael Passmore pulls out a small jar of his truffle steelhead roe, a deep-orange caviar that’s harvested from steelhead trout and has a buttery taste. That jar retails for about $250, but Passmore loves to pair the medium-sized roe with simple ingredients, such as bread and butter, or, for this interview at his home on Passmore Ranch, he mixes it up with hummus and serves it with tortilla chips.

“Usually I just have a Budweiser with it,” he says with a laugh.

Passmore, a Texas native who joined the Marines right after high school, has kept his down-home charm while becoming one of the premier sustainable fish farmers in America (the Monterey Bay Aquarium cites Passmore Ranch as a prime example). Passmore Ranch, an 86-acre spread on the rolling grasslands of Sloughhouse, features open-air freshwater ponds and multiple tanks filled with steelhead trout, black and striped bass, silver carp, catfish, and sturgeon, the huge fish that got him the attention of top chefs in Sacramento, including Billy Ngo of Kru and Kelly McCown of The Kitchen.

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Michael Passmore holds a baby sturgeon raised on his fish ranch

Head first

Passmore knew nothing about fish when he moved to Sacramento for a job in corporate-background screening. When he bought the Sloughhouse property in 2005, he was planning to attend law school, but then he met and became friends with his next-door neighbor, Ken Beer, who owns The Fishery in Galt, one of the best-regarded aquaculture farms in the U.S. Passmore decided to raise fish for Beer as a hobby, but with typical all-out gusto, Passmore moved 400,000 square yards of dirt to build six ponds, filled with freshwater from the Cosumnes River aquifer. It’s from Beer that Passmore learned how to get fish to eat on the water’s surface, not the bottom, to keep them cleaner tasting.

He started selling black bass and catfish to Asian stores, then set up shop at farmers’ markets, which is where he had a stroke of luck in 2010. Todd Selland, of Selland Family Restaurants, came upon Passmore’s stand at the Sunday-morning market under the Highway 50 freeway, liked what he saw, asked for sturgeon to be delivered to The Kitchen Restaurant, and started telling Northern California chefs about the friendly Texan selling live fish.

Passmore soon became a chef’s favorite because he gave them sturgeon exactly as they wanted — live, fileted, and aged, or freshly “conked on the head.”

In turn, the chefs learned how to use sustainable, new-to-them fish in creative, playful ways. For example, Ngo at Kru began turning sturgeon skin into crispy chicharróns, and McCown at The Kitchen started deep-frying carp and seasoning it with Asian spices. Passmore Ranch got its biggest spotlight in April at the world-famous Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival, when Ngo presented Passmore’s sturgeon as rillettes with caviar, yuzu, yaki onigiri, and pea tendrils.

The idea for caviar came about after Passmore saw chefs use domestic-raised white sturgeon caviar (the Sacramento area is the largest producer of it in the U.S.).

“I saw the caviar and thought, ‘I have sturgeon; maybe I should look at this,’ although I was not a caviar aficionado by any means,” Passmore says.

He made his first batch five years ago and invited chefs over for a tasting. They liked the nutty, salty taste, but it was a wet, sloppy mess. Passmore was determined to improve the structure and presentation, and after multiple batches and creating a hatchery to sustainably spawn fish and harvest eggs, he now offers white sturgeon caviar (starting at $69 for a 15-gram bottle), along with salmon roe and trout roe, on the Passmore Ranch website.

Even though his caviar is served in three-star Michelin restaurants, Passmore says his caviar is not just for special occasions.

“It’s a luxury, but it’s not priced out of reach,” he says. “Buying a jar of it can make your evening special.”

Especially if you decide to eat it with something besides Budweiser.

Vanessa Richardson is a Sacramento-based writer who typically covers entrepreneurship, startups, and tech innovation, but now is writing more about the business of food and agriculture. She also makes great pasta sauces and a mean chocolate layer cake.

Where to find it

Passmore Ranch fish is served in Sacramento restaurants such as The Kitchen, Kru, Mulvaney’s B&L, and Ella Dining Room & Bar.

Passmore Ranch caviar and roe are available for purchase online at Passmoreranch.com/shop.

Resources

How to eat caviar

Michael Passmore suggests these unusual-but-easy pairings:

For breakfast: “I put it on a baguette with butter and eat it with a cup of coffee from Chocolate Fish. I also love a dollop of it over medium-boiled eggs sliced in half, with some olive oil, salt, and pepper.”

For dessert: “I love steelhead roe on vanilla ice cream. Just let the ice cream soften, top it with the roe, and drizzle it with whiskey.”

For snacks: Mix it with hummus and serve it with tortilla chips or crackers. “It goes well with Prosecco and Champagne. But for me, just give me a Budweiser, a bag of chips, and some caviar.”

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