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Caviar Cachet

Once Plentiful and Cheap, the Sturgeon Roe Craved by Czars Increases in Demand as the Politics of Procurement Become More Byzantine
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 1)

"Now the product has to have a permit, which is issued by the originating country," David Magnotta says. "Buyers like me, who have to resell their caviar [to retail shops, cruise lines, etc.], need those permits because people who want to buy from me want to see them. Before, you could deal with black-market sellers and it wasn't really illegal. Now it is. I believe this will cut the black market in half."

While controls will mean less bogus caviar, they also mean higher prices, because that window of free-market caviar dealing that was wide open for the past eight years is closing. Prices are already going up, and Magnotta thinks they could go 50 percent higher by the end of the year.

None of this specifically addresses environmental concerns about the Caspian Sea. For years, the prevailing opinion of many observers was that the Caspian was polluted, though the extent of the pollution wasn't clear. But Vadim Birstein, the founder of the Sturgeon Society, a nonprofit scientific organization, says that pollution "isn't a real threat to sturgeon. In some areas, notably the Volga River [which empties into the Caspian], where sturgeon go to spawn, there is actually less pollution since the fall of the Soviet Union because there is less industry.

Caspian Sea caviar is obtained from three varieties of sturgeon. Beluga caviar comes from the beluga sturgeon, officially the huso huso species. It is the largest sturgeon, weighing up to 1,000 pounds at maturity. Because a beluga sturgeon doesn't lay its eggs until it is around 20 years old, those eggs aren't plentiful--beluga represents only about 10 percent of all Caspian Sea caviar. Thus the law of supply and demand dictates that it should cost more. At about $60 for 30 grams (1.1 ounces), it does.

Osetra sturgeon can take up to 13 years to reach maturity and a weight of up to 600 pounds (though most don't exceed 400). Since this sturgeon reproduces sooner than the beluga sturgeon, its eggs are more abundant and, therefore, less expensive--about half the price of beluga.

At a few dollars an ounce less than osetra, sevruga caviar is the cheapest caviar. A sevruga sturgeon, which weighs no more than 100 pounds, produces eggs when it is between seven and 10 years old.

The beluga's rarity makes it the choice of those who want to splurge or impress. But it isn't necessarily the best caviar. In fact, people in the caviar business often choose otherwise. Gerald Stein, president of the Miami-based Stone Hill, which sells Iron Gate caviar, prefers osetra. "I think it's the most flavorful of all the caviars," he says. And Ira Goller, the owner of Murray's Sturgeon Shop, the venerable New York caviar and smoked-fish emporium, opts for sevruga "if I'm paying." Magnotta prefers osetra because it has a much broader range of flavors. "Some have nutty nuances, others have richness, others are pale." he says.

The beluga's eggs are the largest of the three sturgeons, though despite the popular misconception, when it comes to caviar eggs, size doesn't matter. "You should taste caviar blindfolded," Stein says. For years, beluga eggs were graded 000, 00 and 0, with 000 being the largest and presumably the best. That system, which is now outdated, never applied to osetra or sevruga eggs.

Osetra eggs are smaller, with firmer membranes, and sevruga eggs are smaller still, with even firmer membranes. Thus, that "pop" people talk about when they bite down on caviar is probably from one of these caviars, because the beluga's membrane is so soft that it produces more of a squish--though that buttery squish can be pretty sensual.

Color is also not a factor in taste. Beluga may range from silvery or steel gray to charcoal gray or darker. There are even albino beluga eggs, though they are rare. Osetra can be as light as deep gold but it is more likely to be brown to gray. Golden osetra is a rare caviar that was supposedly reserved only for the czars. (But rarity doesn't always equal flavor, as I discovered when I tasted some golden osetra last year.) The sevruga's eggs are normally steel gray.

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