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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

(continued from page 1)

Beluga is a species of sturgeon. So is sevruga and so is osetra. Each of these caviars consistently tastes different because the fish they come from are different. For example, beluga is by far the largest of all the sturgeon species. It can get up to 1,500 pounds or more. That's why its roe is the biggest.  

Engstrom willingly concedes that the best caviar comes from the Caspian Sea. And that's a very big problem. "Fifteen years ago the Caspian Sea produced about 3,000 tons of caviar," he says. "Today the production is 200 to 250 tons."  

The former Soviet Union controlled the industry with a famously iron fist. "But started in 1991, with the 'opening up' of perestroika, the system collapsed," says Engstrom. "Fishermen starting fishing for themselves. Then came all sorts of smuggling. Quality declined. The Caspian got overfished. And then there's the incredible pollution of the Russian rivers, especially the Volga, where the sturgeon migrate, like salmon, to breed."  

These are today's caviar facts of life. But it doesn't mean high-quality caviar can't be had. Buyers just need to be savvy. And you can't let snobbery get in the way.  

For example, conventional caviar wisdom says beluga is the best. But that's not always the case.  

"What's the best?" Dafne Engstrom asks. "Beluga has the largest grain," she says, referring to the size of the roe. "And yes, it is good. But is it better than osetra? Or sevruga? Each caviar has its quality. But everyone's heard of beluga, so that's what they want."  

We repair to the Engstroms' refrigerated warehouse for a tasting. A row of different caviar tins is laid out, from beluga to osetra to sevruga, from Caspian Sea caviar to California-raised.  

The first order of business is the protocol of tasting from the tin. Using a small plastic tasting spoon, like the kind you get at Baskin-Robbins, Dafne Engstrom slips the spoon under the top layer of the tin. "You should never scoop from the top," she instructs. "Always go under. That way the top layer remains intact and the appearance is preserved."  

Tasting caviar, like swirling and sniffing wine, has its particular methodology. "You take a small quantity and press the caviar gently against the roof of your mouth," says Dafne. "You should feel the roundness of each grain of roe and then a wonderful melting sensation."  

This last point is critical. The business about caviar "popping" or having a crunch is more baloney than sturgeon roe. "There absolutely shouldn't be a crunch," Dafne says. "If it crunches, it's been pasteurized. You don't want that."  

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