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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 2)

Top-quality versions of any of these caviars should be pleasantly saline, with a few mineral or metallic hints and a rich eggy or buttery (caviar purveyors prefer the latter term) flavor. However, sevruga often has a stronger seafood character than the milder beluga. The eggs should also be solid and uniform with no breakage or bleeding, a condition that should exist all the way through the tin or jar. The eggs should also have a clean sea-breeze smell. The best Caspian caviar is labeled "Malossal," which means "little salt."

Pressed caviar, called payusnaya, is made up of eggs that have been pressed together, a process that releases much of the oil in them, thus intensifying the flavor. It is not especially attractive--it looks a bit like black shoe polish--so most Americans shy away from it. More traditional Russians, however, prefer pressed caviar, according to Darra Goldstein, precisely because its flavor is more intense. "Beluga has more status but it's too effete for most Russians," she says. "If you got Russians alone, they'd prefer the gutsy stuff. Western palates shy away from strong flavors, especially fishy ones."

Pasteurized caviar has been partially cooked, which changes the texture and flavor. The advantage is a longer shelf life.

If you'd rather not eat Caspian caviar, what are your options? If you have a very broad definition of caviar, plenty. For one, there is caviar from sturgeon found elsewhere in the world. Keluga caviar, also known as Chinese, Siberian or Mandarin caviar, comes from sturgeon in the Amur River, which separates Siberia from China. These huso dauricus sturgeon are cousins of the Caspian huso huso. Mats Engstrom, who has been working with Chinese caviar for a dozen years and imports it through his enterprise, California Sunshine Fine Foods, thinks it is equal or superior to Caspian beluga because it comes from cleaner waters.

I've tasted keluga and beluga at the same sitting, and found that the keluga's eggs were somewhat firmer, more individually identifiable than the beluga's, which were softer and more pliable, offering less resistance to being scooped with a spoon. Though it is not as unctuous as beluga, the keluga was still excellent--very buttery and more saline. The beluga was fatter, creamier, eggier, with a more subtle flavor overall.

Engstrom has also been pioneering farmed osetra sturgeon in California's Sacramento delta. Its pewter-gray eggs are nicely separate and rather large, but they lack much depth of flavor. Several companies, including Engstrom's, also sell caviar from the Mississippi River hackleback sturgeon tributaries. Those I tasted from California Sunshine were small, black and separate but lacked richness.

Even further removed from Caspian caviar is salmon roe, which is sometimes called red caviar. Salmon eggs are large, with a translucent reddish-orange color. Russians like salmon roe because it is saltier than most other caviar and has more of a bite. Golden caviar is produced from Great Lakes whitefish. It has a bright color and a gentle crunch that make it more appropriate for canapés and garnish (such as on pasta). Don't even think about lumpfish caviar, the cheap, salty coarse-tasting stuff sold at supermarkets.

Americans have built up a whole ritual surrounding caviar because we have exalted it for so long. It's as if we're offering the stuff up to the gods as a sacrifice. In truth, the better the caviar, the simpler the presentation. Really good caviar needs nothing more than a spoon. But not just any spoon. Mother-of-pearl is the connoisseur's choice, because it shows off the caviar beautifully and doesn't impart any flavors. Failing that, use a spoon made of bone or gold. Never use silver, because it gives the caviar a metallic taste. Even plastic is better.

What about those chopped eggs, chopped onions and lemon juice? "That's for the birds," Engstrom says. "It's like drinking Rémy Martin and Coke." But Engstrom does have one suggestion that may seem a bit strange: Wonder bread. Why? "Because it has no taste!" he explains.

Lightly toast the bread, then remove the crusts and cut each slice into four triangles. Scoop a small amount of caviar (an ounce or less) onto the toast points. Scrape the caviar off the bread and into your mouth with your teeth, much the same way you would with an artichoke leaf. Then throw away the bread (unless you really like Wonder bread, of course). Another possibility is to use thin rounds of cucumber.

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