Fish eggs. Although the prospect may sound unappealing to some, the salted roe of the female sturgeon is one of the world's most renowned―and expensive―luxury foods. For those who love it, caviar is the supreme splurge, a crisp-tender bite of the ocean. Others side with Tom Hanks' Big character, who spits out a mouthful of caviar. Definitely a love-it-or-hate-it kind of food.
At varying times in history, caviar has been widely available due to plentiful fish. The salted roe of Hudson River sturgeon, for example, was given away with nickel glasses of beer in 19th-century New York state. At other times, Russian czars, European aristocrats, and others of great wealth enjoyed caviar's saline suavity while lesser mortals had to do without.
Today those who are even modestly affluent can afford quality caviars―if they know what to choose. The crème de la crème traditionally comes from Russia and Iran, from beluga sturgeon caught in the Black and Caspian seas and the Sea of Azov. However, these stocks are overfished and endangered so bans are in place to prohibit sale in the United States. One reason for depleted numbers is that these fish don't reproduce until 25 years of age and only every four years. The good news is that American aquafarms now offer excellent, bargain-price caviars from sturgeon, whitefish, salmon, spoonfish, and others.
The best way to learn caviar is to find a good supplier and try many varieties. So get out there and indulge!
There's no need to be intimidated; here's the scoop.
The exotic names usually denote the type of fish the eggs come from. It's a bit like comparing Chardonnay to Sauvignon Blanc, without the hundreds of labels to confuse you.
Beluga is traditionally considered the best (and certainly the most expensive) caviar. The largest of all sturgeon, beluga can take 20-plus years to sexually mature, making their eggs the rarest kind of sturgeon roe. Beluga caviar is steel to dark-gray in color, and eggs are large―just smaller than allspice berries. They are rather sturdy and give a distinctive burst when pressed against the roof of the mouth. Avoid imported beluga sturgeon caviar and purchase domestic varieties (see below).
Osetra caviar comes from smaller osetra sturgeon. About the size of white peppercorns, the eggs are brownish-gray with a delicate texture and a nutty or fruity flavor. Some harder-to-find versions may be golden. Europeans often prefer osetra to beluga because of its good taste and average price.
Sevruga caviar has an intense, almost lemony flavor. Each sevruga egg is only slightly larger than a mustard seed. The eggs' texture is almost crisp, but not tough. Quite small, sevruga sturgeon mature in seven years, so their roe is plentiful.
Malossol simply means "little salt." While all caviar is salted, malossol is considered the highest grade of caviar because it has less than 5 percent salt. The term "malossol" can describe the roe of beluga, osetra, or sevruga sturgeon.
Pressed caviar is made from damaged eggs, which are pressed to extract the liquid. It has a strong flavor and "jammy" texture that some aficionados love. Significantly less expensive than whole eggs, pressed caviar is a bargain for those who love the delicacy's intensity.
Pasteurized caviar has been heat-treated to make it shelf stable. The caviar's taste, consistency, and especially texture suffer greatly from the cooking process. Use it only in recipes where other flavors will play an important role.
Domestic caviar is creating a buzz in the industry. Russian imports have suffered from the breakup of the Soviet Union, overfishing, and pollution. American companies now produce caviar from the roe of wild and farm-raised sturgeon, salmon, whitefish, and paddlefish or spoonfish.
BUYING AND SERVING
When it comes to caviar, selecting the good stuff is important, but so is handling and serving. Here are tips from the experts.
Purchasing and storing. The eggs should be shiny, not cloudy, and should not smell strong. Mail-order products are generally shipped in coolers with several chill packs to ensure freshness. Unopened caviar can be held for about 10 days; once opened, it should be refrigerated and consumed within three days.
Serving. Fine caviar is best served with plain or buttered toast points. (To make toast points, cut good-quality, thin-sliced white bread into triangles. Bake at 350˚ for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool and store in zip-top bags or other airtight containers.)
Another classic way to serve caviar is with blini―tiny buckwheat pancakes―topped with a dollop of crème fraîche or sour cream. And then there's the direct, but distinctly costly, approach: Stick a spoon in it and start eating.
For serving size, plan on 4 ounces for four people. Opt for 2 ounces if other appetizers are served.
TASTE OF THE OCEAN (legend for image above)
1) Golden Pearl Salmon
2) California Estate Osetra
3) Beet and Saffron Whitefish
4) Ginger Whitefish
5) Truffled Whitefish
6) Wasabi Whitefish
To purchase Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, visit tsarnicoulai.com.