Insights: Indulgences—Caviar Dreams

More than just fish eggs, caviar is a truly tasteful extravagance

I only got my fill of caviar once.

My wife and I were married in Alsace, France, in 1980. I asked the great French winegrower Hubert Trimbach to be our best man. On the day of the wedding, Hubert was on a plane back from London when he met Rudi Franz, a friend from childhood. This is where the all-the-caviar-I-could-eat story begins.  

Rudi was returning to France from Iran, where he had just finished a stint as director of Air France. Delighted to see his boyhood chum, Hubert told him about our wedding and mentioned that the dinner was to be at the three-star restaurant L'Auberge de l'Ill. "Why don't you join us?" asked Hubert. Rudi agreed.  

We heard about this when we finally arrived at the church. "We'll get together for some Champagne at my flat before we go to dinner," Hubert said. We did just that and shortly afterwards Rudi arrived, bearing a one-kilo tin of black-market Iranian caviar.  

No one, before or since, has offered me 2.2 pounds of caviar.

"May as well eat it all," Rudi said offhandedly, as if the stuff were peanut butter at a picnic. There were six of us. We ate it all. Then we went to dinner.  

More than any other food, caviar divides the merrymakers from the moralizers. "It's just fish eggs," the killjoys say. That's true, but calling caviar fish eggs is like calling truffles mushrooms.  

Still, it is worth keeping in mind that caviar is fish eggs, specifically (as well as legally) the roe of sturgeon. This is worth remembering because it explains so much about caviar names, why it tastes the way it does, and why caviar is so variable and tricky to buy, never mind the purse-popping expense.  

"A connoisseur is someone who understands what caviar is," says Mats Engstrom, the Swedish-born president and chief executive officer of Tsar Nicoulai Caviar Inc. in San Francisco. Engstrom is a jovial man who, with his wife, Dafne, launched their caviar business (under the name California Sunshine Fine Foods Inc.) about 20 years ago. Since then, they've received considerable attention for their strenuous efforts to commercialize American sturgeon roe, all the while importing the more prized Caspian Sea caviar.  

"Caviar," says the 63-year-old CEO, "is as much the creation of the fish as anything." That's why you have these names.

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."  

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."  

Contemporary caviar fanciers never serve the precious roe in anything other than its austere, sea-scented glory on something neutral such as toast or a Russian blini or pancake, and they never use a silver spoon to serve the caviar. Silver reacts with the roe and leaves a metallic taste. Mother of pearl is ideal, or gold, because it doesn't react.   But we surely will react no matter how the caviar reaches us.  

Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.