Caviar was not always the stuff of dreams. Once it was a reality of everyday life. In nineteenth-century Russia, caviar was so abundant that "people used to clarify their soups with it," says Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian and Russian literature at Williams College. "People talk about 'mounds of caviar' even in the Stalin years."
The United States was no slouch when it came to caviar consumption, either. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sturgeon in the Hudson and Delaware rivers produced so much caviar that it was sold for a penny a pound and given away in bars (after liberal salting) to entice patrons to drink more beer.
Alas, due to overfishing the American caviar boom went bust around 1910, though it is making a comeback of sorts. And what's happening in Russia? That's a good question, the answer to which no one seems to know for sure, because the fate of Caspian Sea sturgeon roe--the only true caviar--is heavily mired in politics, frontier-style capitalism, and an increasing concern about the environment. "No one knows for sure what's going on, including the governments--especially the governments," says M. David Magnotta, the owner of Caviar Russe, a restaurant, bar and retail store, and the managing director of Caspian Star Caviar, an importer and wholesaler in New York.
Despite its name, the Caspian Sea is a huge lake, bounded on three sides by Russia and several other nations that belonged to the former Soviet Union. To the south lies Iran.
Dealing with Iran is the easy part: we don't. The U.S .government has had a long-standing embargo on Iranian products, including caviar. Iranian caviar goes mainly to Europe, where it may wind up in American hands by hook or by crook, but that's a minor detail. Russian caviar--or perhaps more accurately, former Soviet Union caviar--is what we see in the United States. You may have heard some people wistfully reminiscing about the good old U.S.S.R.? One reason to recall it fondly is the way the Soviets handled the caviar trade: with an iron fist. "It was a monopoly," Magnotta says. "Whatever they wanted to sell you, they could, and at whatever price they wanted."
While everything from production to distribution to price was strictly controlled, at least you knew where you stood. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, there were almost as many caviar dealers as there were fish eggs. Some were legitimate; some weren't. And sometimes you didn't discover this until you opened a tin of caviar.
Poaching and overfishing became rampant because there was no single authority to control it. Russia had more important things to worry about, such as the renegade Chechnya province and former Soviet republics, such as Dagestan, which hated the Russians, their former masters, with a passion. "There is tremendous contraband," Goldstein says. "Russia is more concerned about arms than caviar."
"It's a Wild, Wild West out there," says Craig Hoover, program officer for TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) North America, which monitors trading in wildlife for the World Wildlife Fund. As a result of this free-for-all, caviar production has declined, but how far is in dispute, since no one seems to have hard numbers. The closest one can get is by studying the data on world sturgeon catch published by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, which, Hoover admits, "are a bit suspect." These figures show 26,538 metric tons in 1984 and 13,562 metric tons in 1994. Even more startling are figures that show the Soviet Union with 24,245 metric tons in 1984 and the Commonwealth of Independent States (which includes all the former Soviet republics) with 5,422 metric tons in 1994.
These numbers, however, don't always reflect the reality of what is available to consumers. More caviar may have existed before communism came tumbling down, but because the Soviets controlled supplies, it wasn't as widely accessible, nor was it offered at the kinds of prices we've seen in the past eight years. When Goldstein visited Russia in the summer of 1997, she had more fresh caviar than she's ever had, albeit surreptitiously. "It was never on display. But if you knew where to go, there was plenty of it," she says. "The 'new' Russians [capitalists who have made a killing in the free market] are eating it like crazy."
Into this Wild West has come a Wyatt Earp of sorts, prepared to clean up Dodge City. The new law in town is CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. In June 1997, in a proposal put forward by the United States and Germany, CITES agreed to list sturgeon as an Appendix Two fish, which means that it was threatened with endangerment by commerce. Thus, CITES required that as of April 1998, all sturgeon and sturgeon products, such as caviar, must have a permit when being traded commercially. This declares that the exporting country has legally harvested and exported the product. And it certifies that harvesting and trade are not detrimental to the overall animal population.
"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.
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.
Russians, incidentally, like to use toasted French bread that has been coated with a thin layer of sweet butter. For salmon roe, they prefer black bread. Blini (small pancakes) are also traditional vehicles for caviar. But Darra Goldstein thinks the practice of using sour cream on blini, or anywhere else, is "an abomination. Russian restaurants do that here," she says. "But using cream is a Swedish affectation."
A more sensual way to eat caviar is off your hand. With one fist slightly closed, put a half ounce on the soft skin between the first knuckle of your forefinger and the first knuckle of your thumb. Then slurp it up. This is how professional tasters sample caviar.
You'll often see pictures of blue caviar tins or silver caviar containers immersed in ice. While this may look snazzy, water from the melting ice can ruin caviar. Besides, if the caviar is too cold, its flavor will be masked, just like an overchilled Bâtard-Montrachet. And, as with white Burgundy, the perfect serving temperature is around 50 degrees. However, if the caviar is going to be sitting around for a while--and why would you let that happen?--put a napkin between the ice and the container holding the caviar.
One of the many other misconceptions about caviar is that it is a perfect mate for Champagne. But this pairing is more fantasy than reality and stems from the fact that both are quintessential symbols of celebration. Unfortunately, almost all Champagnes, even the dry brut variety, have too much residual sugar for caviar. In their book Red Wine With Fish, the authors David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson note that "almost every Champagne and sparkling wine in our tasting seemed coarser, sweeter, hotter after eating the caviar." If you insist on bubbly, use the lightest, driest Champagne you can find, such as a French brut sauvage.
While some think that beer goes well with caviar, the ultimate beverage with caviar is vodka, especially right from the freezer. Vodka encased in a block of ice is makes for an attractive presentation. To achieve this, put the bottle of vodka into an empty half-gallon milk carton, fill it with water, then place it upright in the freezer. When the water has frozen (the alcohol will prevent the vodka from freezing), peel or cut off the carton. I think the best vodkas are the ones that aren't too high in alcohol (80 proof) and have some character and viscosity, such as Kremlyovskaya, Stolichnaya Gold and Smirnoff Black from Russia, and the Polish-made Belvedere and Chopin.
Buying caviar in the United States is easy, because reputable mail-order firms, such as California Sunshine Fine Foods (800) 952-2842), Caviar Russe (800) 692-2842), Caviarteria (800) 422-8427; (800) 287-9773 in California), Murray's Sturgeon (212) 724-2650), Petrossian (800) 828-9241), Stone Hill Inc. (800) 672-2842) and Zabar's (800) 697-6301 outside New York City; (212) 496-1234 in New York) can ship overnight. Use those gel packs (instead of ice) to help keep the caviar cold in the refrigerator until you use it--no more than a day or two, or as soon as you can find a spoon.
Sam Gugino is the Tastes columnist for the Wine Spectator and the author of Cooking to Beat the Clock, to be published in December.