The supremacy, delicacy, taste and luxurious of true Caspian Sea caviar cannot be disputed. Gourmets clamour to obtain the freshest and the best, regardless of cost. Most gourmets like to pair it with champagne, but the true connoisseur knows that the best alcoholic beverage to accompany caviar is well-chilled vodka.
Caviar obtained form sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea has always been expensive, but after the collapse and disapqearance of the Soviet Empire, the stocks came perilously close to extinction due to uncontrolled fishing of local fishermen just to survive. Now the price is even higher and likely to continue.
There are two major true caviar producing countries Russia and Iran. Russian caviar is widely distributed throughout the world via intermediaries in Paris and other major cities of commerce. Iranian caviar distribution is in the hands of very few, well-connected companies concentrating on major markets like London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, and duty free shops in major European hubs. The Russian government recognized how important it its to preserve the stocks and introduced control mechanisms to protect a major source of hard currency earnings. The efficacy of these and enforcement remains to be seen.
Caviar is expensive due to its limited supply (70 metric tonnes per year) outstripped by constantly increasing demand, and elaborate time-consuming technique of production. True Caspian caviar is derived from the Beluga sturgeon (grand sturgeon), Osetrova sturgeon (acipenser stadti persicus) and Sevruga sturgeon (acipenser stelatus).
The largest sturgeon is Beluga, and smallest Sevruga. Sturgeon, an ancient fish, takes a long time to reach maturity. (Beluga 20, Osetrova 13-15, and Sevruga 6 – 10 years). The fish are caught before laying their eggs. Now Russian scientists sedate the sturgeon and carefully massage the eggs out, then return it into sea.
The Iranians built dams offshore to protect the waters; they also better monitor the fish and its development. It is claimed that the food available to sturgeon in the southern Caspian Sea results in more complex tasting caviar than those in Russian waters.
In olden times after the fish was caught, it was washed several times and the belly was cut open on a marble topped table to remove the whole sac of eggs enveloped in a membrane which was carefully removed and the contents sieved to separate the eggs by size. The eggs were then lightly salted (mallosol) for preservation.
Europeans like lightly salted caviar, whereas North Americans and Japanese prefer a higher dosage of salt.
Caviar contains approximately 52 percent water, 28 percent protein, 16 percent fat, 1.5 percent sugar, 1.0 percent vitamins and trace constituents. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan also border the Caspian Sea and produce caviar. but only for local consumption.
The finest large shiny caviar is derived from Beluga sturgeon – the biggest species. The eggs measure 2.5 mm. in diameter are grey to dark grey, with a delicate, rich and creamy texture. Grey Beluga caviar is paler in colour than Beluga, but equally valuable and tasty.
Osetrova or Ocietra caviar may be grey, or rarely golden with small eggs (2.5 mm in diameter); Sevruga sturgeon yields the smallest eggs( less than 2.5 mm in diameter). Osetrova caviar is yellow to brownish, with an earthy, complex and infinitely refined taste. Sevruga caviar is light to dark grey in colour, lightly fruity, pleasantly mild and sweetish in taste.
The Swiss and French are the biggest caviar consumers followed by Americans, British and Japanese. Canadian caviar consumption is relatively small due to the size and composition of the population, but steady with a trend to increase.
Quality caviar must have a bright glossy colour, fresh, mild smell, uniformly sized eggs and lightly salty flavour. The texture must be firm to the bite, not squish soft.
Caviar is packaged in 1,2, 5-ounce containers or 100, 200, 300 or 500 grams tins. In Europe ounces are replaced by 50 gram increments. Grade one caviar consists of intact eggs, whereas grade 2 (50 percent broken pieces and/or soft eggs). Pressed caviar has more than 50 percent broken and milk white eggs resulting from inclement weather or improper handling.
Iranian Karaburun sturgeon is closely related to Ostrova, yields a caviar of maber to medium yellow colour with a green sheen and slightly nutty flavour. Caspian Sea caviar is expensive and remains the privilege of wealthy gourmets, but the high price encourages entrepreneurs to produce caviar in other locations. The Loire River is one source, Lake Superior in another, and Chinese have also been able to reintroduce sturgeon in the yellow River.
White sturgeon, indigenous to the Pacific coast, is now farm-raised yielding good quality caviar
The wild white sturgeon is protected by the U S Fish and Wildlife Service and may not be fished.
Hackleback or shovelnose sturgeon, native to the Mississippi-Missouri River system yields black, intense-, sweet- nutty-tasting caviar, and paddlefish or spoonbill sturgeon (a cousin of sturgeon) produces pale grey to dark, smooth, silky caviar.
Petrossian is a world-famous caviar importer and marketer. The head-office in Paris imports caviar from reliable sources and packages for distribution. The company markets also smoked salmon, pates, foie gras, truffles and other delicacies.
Petrossian’s fame rests with quality and its affiliation with the finest food suppliers in Paris i.e. Hediard, Fouchon, and high-end Parisian restaurants. In New York Petrossian operates a restaurant featuring his fine products and retails in an adjacent boutique. The company also introduced Baerii caviar from farm-raised Siberian sturgeon.
Then there is salmon-, trout roe- and whitefish caviar. Large-egg salmon caviar is pleasant in texture but not in taste, trout roe bland and white fish is dyed black. Most restaurants use the latter as a garnish, and one can see the discolouring of the food on which the grains are sprinkled.
Caviar should be spooned with a bone horn, crystal, or mother-of-pearl specially designed instrument. Metal spoons impart a metallic taste.
Purists take caviar chilled, never iced, on toast points, Russians on blinis (buckwheat pancakes), Germans with steamed fingerling potatoes anointed with a little unsalted butter.
In many restaurants, caviar is served with sour cream, chopped red onions, chopped hard-boiled egg whites and yolks, and parsley. All help stretch the quantity, but drown the delicate taste.
Always buy caviar from a reputable merchant and calculate one ounce per person for pre dinner reception. Caviar is highly perishable, and once opened, lasts refrigerated for a day or two. Unopened jars should be stored in the coldest part (meat drawer) of a refrigerator.
In Toronto Pusateri’s, Bruno’s and the St Lawrence market (the store is in the basement) carry a good selection.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu
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