The Beginner's Guide to Caviar
There's no quicker way to announce that a meal is special. More than lobster or champagne (or even a giant bucket of fried chicken), a dollop of sturgeon roe instantly tells an assembled crowd they're in for a celebration. And while caviar was once a delicacy reserved for Russian czars, it's now an accessible—and surprisingly affordable—luxury. Here's how to choose, serve, and most of all enjoy this singular pleasure.
Caviar is made from the "roe" (or eggs) of a female sturgeon. These large migratory fish have lived for 250 million years in the cold waters of the northern hemisphere. They are traditionally found in the Caspian Sea, surrounded by present-day Russia and Iran, two well-known caviar-producing countries. Sturgeon are also found in the Black Sea, parts of America's Pacific Northwest and South Atlantic waters, and fresh-water lakes and rivers across Europe.
America's caviar industry was born in the 1870s when Henry Schacht, a German immigrant, opened a business catching sturgeon in the Delaware River. By the early 20th century, the U.S. was the major caviar supplier to Europe; sturgeon was plucked from lakes in the Midwest and East Coast rivers and exported and sold at a premium.
TYPES OF CAVIARS
"While there are more than 27 species of sturgeon, the three most prized historically come from the Caspian Sea: Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga," says Patrick Brown, founder of the recently-launched online caviar purveyor Khavyar. "Beluga, the rarest and most expensive, has large, delicate eggs. However, due to extensive overfishing, these are all endangered species and there is a ban on importing Beluga, which makes it nearly impossible to buy"
Overfishing in the Caspian Sea—and international trade bans like the one Brown mentions—have prompted a shift away from the Iranian and Russian caviar industry and toward sustainably-farmed caviars from America, Europe, and Israel. In fact, the U.S. is considered one of the leaders in sustainably farmed caviars. The quality of the eggs is comparable to that of an Osetra or Sevruga, according to Brown, and the American version is slightly more affordable than what is imported. These sturgeon caviars include:
- Siberian caviar, which exhibits an attractive dark charcoal color and delivers a creamy, nutty flavor that is described as sweet and rich. It's comparable to fine Sevruga caviars.
- Californian White Sturgeon caviar has a creamy mouth feel and a clean finish. It's similar in appearance to some of the Osetra caviars.
- Hackleback caviar is from the domestic Shovelnose Sturgeon that come from the waters of Illinois and Kentucky. The deep black pearls deliver a robust, dry flavor.
Another purveyor, Black River Caviar, sources its roe from a family-owned sturgeon farm in Uruguay.
There's also plenty of caviar that isn't really caviar. These roes come from fish like the Alaskan Salmon or Sea Trout, and they have a lower price tag. Brown's favorites include:
- Sea Trout Rainbow roe that comes from the cold waters of Denmark. These trout are sea-farmed in pristine water. "Mild in flavor, this caviar is firm and playful in the mouth. Its vibrant orange color makes for an excellent presentation," he says.
- Spoonbill, also known as Paddlefish, is a domestic species from the waters of Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee, that's known for its high quality and affordable price. "The roe has a rich and creamy mouth-feel that evokes notes of an Osetra, with an appearance similar to Sevruga—this robust caviar is a delicious alternative to sturgeon caviar."
- Ikura Salmon roe from Alaska is known for its robust flavor and has a firm texture and sweet finish.
HOW TO SERVE IT
During America's caviar boom in the 1800s, the delicacy was in abundance and served in bars and saloons to entice thirsty drinkers for all of a nickel—some places even had free bowls of it. The Hudson River sturgeon was so bountiful, in fact, that it was known as "Albany beef."
Traditionally, caviar is served with blinis and crème fraîche but Black River Caviar-founder Graham C. Gaspard says he prefers to eat it straight off a spoon. While mother-of-pearl spoons have become the go-to serving utensils, you can also serve caviar on wood, plastic, or—for a truly decadent touch—gold. Just be sure to avoid putting it on other metals since it can interact with them and leave a (literal) bad taste in your mouth.
Gaspard also likes "any kind of potato preparation you can come up with," including potato pancakes, mashed potatoes, and potato chips (the T&C office favorite—what, you didn't think we had one?)
As for beverages, you can't go wrong with the standard drink pairings of champagne and vodka. But Brown and Gaspard prefer to be more adventurous.
"In honor of the saloon days, I shy away from the typical champagne and vodka pairing, and prefer to have our caviars with beer, bourbon, and even sake," Brown says. "My favorite pairings include our Ikura Salmon roe with a dry, high-quality sake and our Southern Spoonbill roe partnered with a fine Southern bourbon."
Gaspard, who's developing a caviar and spirits pairing program, likes it with a "good clean pilsner" and points out that wine can also work as long as it's aged in stainless steel instead of oak (which "overtakes it").
It all sounds good to us. We'll take more, please.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.