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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 2)

Therein lies yet another complication: freshness. It doesn't take much imagination to recognize that fish roe is fragile. This is where salting the roe comes in. Caviar, in essence, is salted fish roe.  

Although the caviar folks would like you to believe that it's a rarefied art, making caviar, while subtle, is uncomplicated. Using just the right amount of salt is the key. The skeins of roe are very gently rubbed through a wide-meshed sieve to separate the grains. Bits of the skein are picked out by hand. Then a measured amount of salt is slowly mixed into the roe by hand with a gentle churning motion. You should add just enough salt to draw out some moisture from the eggs to keep them from clumping. The rest is rigorous refrigeration and cleanliness.  

This explains, in turn, the commonly seen Russian word malossol. All it means is "little salt," specifically 2.8 percent to 3.5 percent, according to Mats Engstrom. In nineteenth-century America, before effective refrigeration and fast transport, caviar included as much as 15 percent salt. That's why caviar had such accompaniments as chopped egg and sour cream: it cut the salt. Caviar designated "malossol" in the old days was very rare and sought after. Today, it's the standard.   Good caviar should never be salty-tasting.

"No way," says Dafne. "Sometimes people think a caviar is salty, especially the stronger-tasting sevruga, when it's really the taste of the caviar itself. Now, you may or may not prefer something like sevruga--I love it myself--but it's not saltiness you're getting. It's the penetrating flavor of sevruga itself."  

So what does the serious caviar fancier seek? Tastes vary, but my vote is for osetra, preferably from the Caspian Sea. But barring that, farm-raised American osetra is far from shabby. While beluga does indeed have a bigger grain and a lovely subtlety, osetra has an intriguingly nutty flavor with a very long aftertaste. Sevruga, in comparison, is always more strongly flavored. It's good, but not as subtle.  

Farm-raised osetra is the Engstroms' dream. They have their own osetra sturgeon fish farm in California, which has been decades in the making. Understandably, they are convinced that not only is farm-raised osetra the future for caviar--which virtually no one could possibly dispute--but that it rivals the Caspian Sea version. A side-by-side comparison reveals that the Caspian Sea version is still superior. The farm-raised osetra caviar is not as intensely flavored as the wild version. That acknowledged, it's genuinely fine.  

Buying great caviar is not something you do casually. "If you can, you really should arrange for a tasting first," advises Mats. "Of course, you can't do that if you're living far away. Or if you're buying just a small quantity, like an ounce. But if you're buying three or four ounces or more, then you should taste first, if you can."  

When purchasing large quantities, you're also well advised to deal directly with the importer, rather than a retailer. Most importers such as Tsar Nicoulai and Petrossian sell direct to consumers. They keep their caviar at 25 to 32 degrees Farenheit, whereas most retailers simply put the caviar in a normal refrigerator case that's 10 degrees too warm.  

Also, the importer can choose from among an array of tins to fill your order. You can specify just how you like your caviar: not too salty, but not bland, either. You can choose from a sevruga that's just a bit fishy-tasting or an osetra that's lightly or exceptionally nutty. Each tin of caviar is different because every batch of roe is different. This is also why color is unrevealing, as each batch, like each fish, is, effectively, unique. Also, caviar importers know to turn over their unopened tins once a week to redistribute the oil coating the grains.  

And what do you drink with your caviar served in its pristine glory? "Champagne," says Mats Engstrom unhesitatingly. "I'm not saying it works perfectly, but caviar is, after all, about celebration." Dafne Engstrom demurs. "Vodka is the drink that works best."  

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