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Insights: Indulgences—Caviar Dreams

More than just fish eggs, caviar is a truly tasteful extravagance
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

I only got my fill of caviar once.

My wife and I were married in Alsace, France, in 1980. I asked the great French winegrower Hubert Trimbach to be our best man. On the day of the wedding, Hubert was on a plane back from London when he met Rudi Franz, a friend from childhood. This is where the all-the-caviar-I-could-eat story begins.  

Rudi was returning to France from Iran, where he had just finished a stint as director of Air France. Delighted to see his boyhood chum, Hubert told him about our wedding and mentioned that the dinner was to be at the three-star restaurant L'Auberge de l'Ill. "Why don't you join us?" asked Hubert. Rudi agreed.  

We heard about this when we finally arrived at the church. "We'll get together for some Champagne at my flat before we go to dinner," Hubert said. We did just that and shortly afterwards Rudi arrived, bearing a one-kilo tin of black-market Iranian caviar.  

No one, before or since, has offered me 2.2 pounds of caviar.

"May as well eat it all," Rudi said offhandedly, as if the stuff were peanut butter at a picnic. There were six of us. We ate it all. Then we went to dinner.  

More than any other food, caviar divides the merrymakers from the moralizers. "It's just fish eggs," the killjoys say. That's true, but calling caviar fish eggs is like calling truffles mushrooms.  

Still, it is worth keeping in mind that caviar is fish eggs, specifically (as well as legally) the roe of sturgeon. This is worth remembering because it explains so much about caviar names, why it tastes the way it does, and why caviar is so variable and tricky to buy, never mind the purse-popping expense.  

"A connoisseur is someone who understands what caviar is," says Mats Engstrom, the Swedish-born president and chief executive officer of Tsar Nicoulai Caviar Inc. in San Francisco. Engstrom is a jovial man who, with his wife, Dafne, launched their caviar business (under the name California Sunshine Fine Foods Inc.) about 20 years ago. Since then, they've received considerable attention for their strenuous efforts to commercialize American sturgeon roe, all the while importing the more prized Caspian Sea caviar.  

"Caviar," says the 63-year-old CEO, "is as much the creation of the fish as anything." That's why you have these names.

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