Caviar: How to buy it
by Pat McNees
“Spoil the child, / Spare the rod,
Open up the caviare / And say Thank God.”
– Noel Coward
Copyright © 1993 by Pat McNees. All rights reserved.
My greed for caviar is related in part to the small quantities of the stuff my friends can afford. When my friend Sally introduced me to the real thing (fresh caviar from the refrigerated section of a specialty store, as opposed to jars of dyed-black lumpfish caviar from the shelves of a supermarket), I said (and I meant it), “This is a wonderful experience.” What I wished was that she hadn’t invited two other people.
The next day I bought the smallest container of that caviar I could find (one ounce, $32) and ate the whole thing myself. I felt less guilty after I read G.K. Chesterton’s comment, “There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats Grapenuts on principle.”
What heightens the caviar experience is the price of those little gray or black sturgeon eggs. Caviar is so expensive that you tend to pay attention to what you’re eating instead of just shoveling it in your mouth. Fine fresh caviar not only tastes better than the less expensive pasteurized variety but has a totally different “mouth feel.” The eggs literally pop on your tongue. Either you savor it, or you think about better ways you could have spent the money, or both. Not everyone appreciates caviar, but you owe it to yourself to try the good stuff one, and New Year’s Eve is a perfect excuse.
Tips for the First-Time Investor
Fresh-caviar novices: Arm yourself with a little knowledge and a lot of cash. You know, of course, that caviar is tiny salted roe, or eggs, from a large fish called the sturgeon? The caviar most prized worldwide comes from three species of sturgeon (the beluga, osetra, and sevruga, in descending order of rarity) found in the Caspian Sea, a large saltwater lake bordered by Iran and four former Soviet republics, including Russia. (Only royalty and heads of state experience the succulent caviar from an even rarer fourth species, the sterlet.)
“If you’re a first-time investor in fresh caviar, you may be better off trying the osetra or sevruga,” says Ann Brody of Sutton Place Gourmet, “and save the subtle taste of beluga until you have developed a palate.” (And until it is no longer an endangered species.)
Beluga is not necessarily the best caviar; it’s the most expensive because it is the rarest. The beluga sturgeon, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, doesn’t even start bearing eggs until it’s 20 years old. The “berries,” as they’re called, of beluga caviar are big and soft, and if that’s the texture you like, beluga is great. For some, beluga is too bland and delicate. (Beluga is also rated — 000 for lightest gray to 0, for the blackest berries, with the light color being prized, although color has no bearing on flavor.)
Osetra is second in rareness and costliness. The osetra eggs are slightly smaller, and the flavor is somewhat “nutty.” The osetra weighs up to 600 pounds and begins bearing eggs at 12 to 15 years of age.
Sevruga caviar is the most common and least expensive of the three (a bargain, one could argue). Some prefer its more intense flavor. The sevruga weighs up to 80 pounds and bears its first eggs at about age 7.
“Pressed caviar,” at half the price of sevruga, may be the best buy of all. Broken eggs from the three main kinds of caviar — and sometimes lower grades — are pressed together into a loaf, which some call “caviar jelly” (great on toast). Pressed caviar is also sold from refrigerated cases. It won’t give you the sensation of the eggs popping in your mouth, but it will give you an intense caviar flavor. Fine chefs often use it to make caviar butter, and at parties it is often served with blini or pancakes (where the appearance of the caviar is less important than the flavor).
Only the top qualities of caviar — beluga, osetra, and sevruga — are labeled “malossol,” meaning lightly salted. Lesser grades are more heavily salted. (Malossol caviar contains only 3.5 to 5 percent salt; by contrast, lumpfish caviar from the supermarket shelf is 11 percent salt.) The salt improves the flavor and preserves the freshness. By implication, malossol means both “first quality” and highly perishable.
A Bit of Background
Adult sturgeon live in marine waters but return to freshwater rivers to breed in the spring and the fall. That’s when they’re harvested — hence the two seasons for caviar. When fishermen see a full-grown female sturgeon with a fat belly, the cry goes out—“Ikra!” The fish is bopped on the head with a wooden club, stunned and (ideally) taken immediately to a cold workroom where skilled workers remove the eggs (often while the fish is still alive), strain, clean, and drain them, and turn them over to the master salt blender, who tastes and grades the quality of the eggs and decides what proportion and type of salt to use. Once processed, caviar keeps for many months if stored at 28 degrees Fahrenheit and not exposed to air and light.
“Fresh caviar is delightful enough to eat by the spoonful,” says Ann Brody. “It’s sweet and nutty, has no aftertaste, and shouldn’t be fishy at all.”
That’s partly due to the expertise of specialists — notably Russian — who grade and salt the roe, which officially do not become caviar until salted. Quality control, in both processing and cold storage, is very important with caviar. In the past, both the Soviet Union and Iran exported caviar, and everything was under government control. Iranian caviar is still under government control, but is unavailable in the United States for political reasons. In the former Soviet Union, “everything was funneled through two fisheries and, before the break-up, if you were caught illegally catching a sturgeon, you were literally sent to Siberia,” says Eve Vega, of Petrossian, the Paris-based caviar purveyor.
Since the Soviet Union disintegrated, the caviar world has been in disarray. Now there is no control in Russia; anyone can catch a sturgeon, and last year’s spring catch was ruined, says Vega: The sturgeon were fished before they were ready, so they weren’t very good, and the deltas were overfished.
Dirt-cheap caviar has been available in the past few years, but much of what has been imported has been inferior and has been handled badly. A taste test of caviar published in the November-December issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine found that “at least half of the 12 caviars tasted displayed below-par texture, appearance, and flavor.” Cook’s judges, “veteran caviar tasters,” guessed that many of the caviars, purchased from reputable dealers, “were older than they should have been… that some had been improperly stored, and that we may have tasted some ‘mixed batches,’ a no-no in the world of fine caviar.”
In an advertisement in The New York Times last week, Eric Sobol, vice-president of Caviarteria, the 43-years-old New York caviar import and distribution firm, went further. The Caviarteria ad claimed that “large amounts of 1991 and 1992 caviar are being sold as ’93 catch,” a charge that other distributors deny.
How to Store and Serve Caviar
The only protection a consumer has is to look and taste before buying, and since Washington has no bulk retailers, that opportunity is not likely. The best fallback position is to do the best by the product once it’s in your hands. Take the caviar home from the store (packed in ice) as soon as you buy it. If you aren’t going to eat it all in one sitting, buy two smaller jars rather that one large one. Once you open a jar, eat the contents as soon as possible, setting the container of caviar in a bowl of crushed ice to keep it cold. Oxygen is fresh caviar’s chief enemy, so if you don’t eat it all, press plastic wrap against the eggs to push away the oxygen and refrigerate immediately. (For the same reason, don’t let a large bowl of caviar sit on a buffet table for two hours. Serve only as much as guests can eat quickly, then replenish the supply.) Store caviar in the coldest part of the refrigerator (probably the meat compartment), but not in the freezer.
Serve fine fresh caviar on points of unbuttered white-bread toast or unsalted crackers; the caviar replaces the butter. If you must butter the toast, use unsalted butter.Caviar is sometimes served with sour cream, chopped egg, or lemon — but that is only necessary to cover up the fishiness and oiliness of inferior caviar. Experts say that you ruin or mask the flavor of excellent caviar with these extras. Just put the caviar on your tongue and experience the complexity of tastes.
The experts say fresh caviar should be served from a glass, ivory, bone, or mother-of-pearl spoon — possibly a gold spoon, and never a silver one (it is said to react with the caviar and ruin the taste, although I tried it and detected no difference after three bites). A plastic spoon would be fine (but how could you?), or you may use a plastic serving spoon to dollop the roe onto the back of your hand and eat it from there.
For a beverage, serve ice-cold vodka or plain hot tea (the tannin in the tea cuts the caviar’s oiliness and clears the palate). Champagne is traditional, but Katherine Newell Smith of Sutton Place Gourmet says, “Champagne fights with caviar. I don’t think they marry well. It’s a romance.” I tried all three; I don’t like vodka, but caviar transforms it, and it complements the caviar beautifully.
Caviar as an Ingredient
Early in my love affair with caviar I was served a canapé of the good fresh stuff on freshly ground steak tartare on toast, at New York’s Four Seasons restaurant (for those born in the years ABA—After Bacteria Awareness—steak tartare is chopped raw beef lightly seasoned, one of the joys of yesteryear). The contrasting flavors and textures of the caviar and beef brought out the best in both elements. Few disappointments in my life have been greater than mine that night on learning there were no second helpings.
One secret of fine cooking is knowing when two ingredients improve each other. Caviar does wonderful things to poached or soft-boiled eggs, which makes it a superb breakfast food. Crack the yolk in an egg cup, fill the yolk with caviar, and eat it with a spoon. Use caviar to flavor omelets or scrambled eggs, or serve toasted bagels or English muffins with layers of cream cheese, smoked salmon, and caviar.
Use caviar to garnish cold soups such as cream of potato or cold curried onion soup. Top open-faced cucumber or tomato sandwiches with caviar. Toss a green salad with caviar and vinaigrette. Boil small baby red potatoes, carve out a nook with a melon-baller, and fill it with sour cream and caviar. Serve caviar with blini (Russian pancakes) and sour cream. Create shaped toasts and place salmon caviar on one side and black caviar on the other. Top broiled oysters or clams with caviar before serving.
“With osetra, the fall catch is generally better—the eggs are larger and the color is nicer,” says Hossein Lolavar of Caviar & Caviar in Rockville, MD, which distributes Baku caviar from Azerbaijan, one of the former republics bordering the Caspian. “Beluga and sevruga are generally better in the spring.” July and August are the best months for buying the spring catch, December and January for the fall catch. With age, the eggs break down a bit.
Just before New Years’ many stores sell caviar that don’t sell it throughout the year. The quality of the caviar is likely to be more reliable in a specialty store that regularly carries it and hence has more clout with the best suppliers. In Russia, the freshly processed caviar is packed in one-kilo tins; local suppliers repack it into tiny jars here, and a knowledgeable store buyer will not only insist on freshly packed supplies (with no oiliness or fishy taste) but will insist that certain packers pack it. It’s a fussy business, for good reason.
The Price of Indulgence
For comparison purposes (and believe me, this was my dream assignment), I bought 30 grams (roughly an ounce) each of Petrossian-brand beluga ($54), osetra ($31), and sevruga ($22) from Neam’s of Georgetown, and the same amount of osetra from Sutton Place Gourmet (Baku brand, $27), Fresh Fields ($12.99), and Giant’s Someplace Special in McLean ($21.95), but no American caviars.
I wanted to know if to my rather average palate there was $20 or $30 worth of difference between beluga and sevruga, for instance, and between a $31 osetra and a $13 one. And, feeling in a generous holiday mood, I invited a friend over to help me sample.
All things considered (especially the lack of controls in Russia), I’d say you’re better off trying the sevruga or the osetra; only on soft-boiled eggs did the beluga we tasted stand out above the others. Among the osetras we tried (and at those prices, I bought from a small sample of stores), the quality did not vary greatly, except that the Baku, sold at Sutton Place Gourmet, was firmer and far more complex and interesting than the others. [At the time this article was published, the Baku caviar was on sale at Sutton Place Gourmet (50 grams of osetra reduced from $45 to $35, and 50 grams of sevruga reduced from $30 to $25).]
Jill Wechsler's Caviar Pie
(12 to 16 appetizer servings)
This make-ahead dish is an excellent appetizer or party dish for the holidays. When our friend Jill Wechsler makes this version, there is usually a traffic jam at the buffet table, as one bite leads to another.
6 hard-boiled eggs
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 ½ cups chopped Bermuda (red) onion
8 ounces softened cream cheese
2/3 cup sour cream
4.7 ounces black or red lumpfish caviar (the supermarket variety)
Optional garnish: lemon, parsley, capers, crackers, thin bread, or toast
Grease well an 8- or 9-inch springform pan. Chop 6 hard-boiled eggs, combine with mayonnaise, and spread over pan. Sprinkle with chopped onions. Blend softened cream cheese with sour cream and spread over onion. Cover and chill 3 hours.
Just before serving, top with black or red caviar. Remove sides of springform pan. Garnish with lemon, parsley, capers, as desired. Serve with knife or spreader on side, so people can spread caviar pie on crackers or toast.
This award-winning article was first published as “Fresh Start, Fresh Caviar” in the food section of the Washington Post, December 29, 1993, under editor Nancy McKeon.