I started the concept of this blog as a “try caviar for more than a special occasion” dissertation. I was planning to make my case, making a luxurious, and somewhat mysterious, food item seem accessible and not something one should wait to eat except for on very rare occasions. However, I realized there is no reason to make caviar something it is not — it is special. The price point is its price point, it is expensive. It is relatively more expensive compared to say a pound of escargot, a variety of fine cheeses and other “fancy, fine food” options. Let’s face it, an ounce…an ounce…of caviar can exceed $400. However, the subject of “caviar” is so much more than just the $400 an ounce variety.
I know I don’t have time to give the full history of caviar, production intricacies, numerous different varieties, and extensive wine pairings. I am going to focus on some basics, introduce you to a caviar expert and let you know why I am a caviar enthusiast.
Caviar is salt-cured fish eggs also known as roe. Sturgeon roe is considered “true” caviar — the real deal. Caviar (sturgeon roe) is classified by variety based on a few types, but there are three that are most famous: beluga, sevruga, and osetra.
Beluga sturgeon come from the Caspian Sea (between Russia and Iran). Since beluga sturgeon is considered to be “critically endangered”, the United States has banned the importation of the product. Fish eggs taken from any fish other than sturgeon are not considered “caviar” unless the species’ name comes before the word caviar. For example, “Salmon caviar”. I won’t correct you, though, if you refer to all roe delicacies as “caviar”.
Caviar is extremely perishable and it must be refrigerated and eaten within three weeks of being taken from the fish. There really is no “shelf life”, and once opened needs to be kept refrigerated and eaten within three days. Like many things related to fish, the sooner you eat it, the better. The best way to serve caviar is ice-cold.
I spoke to Masha Zhauniak, Director of Sales at Caviar and Caviar in Florida. I encourage you to check out her website to get a much more expert overview of caviar and all the different types that are available. You will learn about price points, serving suggestions and see visuals of all the lovely “pearls” that are fresh caviar.
Proving the point that caviar is definitely a special occasion food item, Caviar and Caviar has the most sales, to retailers, the week before Christmas and through New Year’s Eve. The average consumer is adding caviar to their menus during the holidays. (Valentine’s Day also spikes sales.) Year-round sales are still steady and chefs, not retailers, are keeping the caviar supply moving with unique dishes, mostly hors d’oeureves or on “small plates”.
I asked Masha what she thought the best caviar for beginners would be. A suggestion would be the Siberian Sturgeon that has a smaller pearl, is Florida-farm-raised and has a clean, smooth taste. She said that to start, one should try caviar plain to really get the flavor experience. Then, taking into account personal preference, you can add blinis (small pancakes), crackers, and toppings like chopped onions, chopped eggs and creme fraiche into the mix. Siberian Sturgeon is about $70 an ounce.
If price was no option, of course I asked this, she recommends the Royal Osetra. This selection has a large pearl with a buttery, silky after taste. Royal Osetra is about $115 an ounce.
For the adventurous, try the River Beluga. With its bold flavor, it is a close experience to Caspian Sea beluga, which for the reasons stated above, is not available in the United States, or many parts of the world as a matter of fact. River Beluga is about $120 an ounce.
I have my own set of pearl spoons sitting on my desk (they make a cute little accent to my glass desk top), and really, how often do I get to use them to eat caviar? Not often enough. So, on my desk they sit, reminding me that New Year’s Eve, and my caviar and bubbles tradition, is coming.
There is a purpose to the spoons; I think mentally, the beautiful pearl puts you in the mood for a little luxury, and in truth, a metal spoon imparts a metallic flavor to the delicate eggs. I can’t imagine a metallic taste helping any food taste better, and caviar can’t hold up to metal utensils like other food. Masha had a great point that pearl spoons can only set one back $10, or less, a piece and are reusable, so they are not as extravagant as you might think at first blush.
Now for the most surprising part of my interview of Masha. I learned a technique that is apparently nothing new to caviar connoisseurs. The “best way” to taste caviar is to place a small amount of caviar on the back of your hand. “Excuse me?” I politely asked for clarification (with visions of licking salt off my hand in between shots of tequila). She couldn’t possibly be talking about that technique. No, not quite. Much more refined. No licking to start, just placing the caviar between the thumb and the forefinger — the indentation, the “web” area. Then, lick it off. Let the eggs pop and burst in your mouth by pushing them to the roof of your mouth. Really taste the caviar on its own. What do you like about what you are trying? Salty? Essence of the sea? Strong notes? Mild undertones? Buttery? Silky mouth feel?
For those of you that don’t believe me about the licking off the hand method, there is a reason for the maneuver. Apparently, this part of our body never sweats. Good caviar should not leave any trace of fishiness on the skin. (Honestly, this answer regarding the technique doesn’t completely satisfy me, so I will do some more research and address this again in Part Two. Did I mention there will be a part two?)
Why am I a caviar enthusiast? One of my best travel memories was on the balcony of Domaine Carneros in Napa Valley. In one hand, a flute of Le Reve Blanc de Blancs 2006, and in the other a small, delicate pancake topped with caviar (I only remember it was a medium pearl with a grey-greenish tint — I didn’t know enough to make note of the exact kind of caviar I was eating), a small dot of creme fraiche all finished with a light squeeze of fresh lemon. Heaven on Earth.
More to come in Part Two of “Caviar and Bubbles”: I have two special guests from Napa offering their expert opinions on nontraditional questions about another one of my favorite topics: sparkling wine.