The drama and culinary delight of caviar bring an Old World elegance to any meal. Here's what you need to know to bring caviar into your home, whether your budget is copper or gold.
The Basics of Caviar
To carry the name, Champagne must come from a specific region of France. To earn its name, caviar must come from one of three sturgeon breeds (there are 27 worldwide) from the Caspian sea. There are great sparkling wines that are not "Champagne," and there are great fish roes that are not "caviar," but provide an enjoyable facsimile.
Sturgeon caviars share certain flavor characteristics across the breeds (varietals); a taste of the sea similar to the juice of a perfectly fresh oyster, a taste of brine, and occasionally a metallic finish. Varietal flavors differ fish by fish and tin by tin. Each fish's diet, environment, maturity and time of harvest affect the flavor and texture of the eggs. How quickly the eggs are processed, how much salt is used, and how they are cured affect the product. Iranians, for example, use brine, while Russians stir salt in directly.
Properly prepared caviar should have "enough salt so the casing can be felt on (your) tongue but with a gentle press will burst and flood your mouth with the flavor of the sea," says restaurateur Nick Peyton.
Serving and Enjoying Caviar
Mother of pearl is caviar's vehicle of choice. Silver shouldn't be used, as it passes on a metallic taint, but stainless steel, horn, wood, and even plastic will do.
Accouterments appear abundantly around caviar, perhaps to distract from the minutia of the main dish. But to appreciate caviar's distinct flavors, it should stand alone. A spoonful placed on your tongue and crushed against the roof of your mouth should deliver a firm pop and a delightful burst of flavors. Mushy or gooey texture indicate problems in processing or age.
True Caviars (Imported) - Wild or farmed. Named for their Sturgeon.
Beluga - The largest freshwater fish on earth produces the largest caviar. Ball-bearing-sized eggs from dark gray to black. Currently illegal in the U.S., the Beluga is in danger of extinction. ($ N/A)
Osetra - The "Russian" Sturgeon's eggs are the size of BBs. All the colors of camouflage, from brownish gray to dark olive. Flavors range from creamy, almost custardy, to nutty. Salty richness and a taste of the sea. ($200-241 per oz.)
Sevruga - The "Persian" Sturgeon produces small "pinhead" black or dark gray eggs. Some connoisseurs prefer to Beluga for the more intense flavors. "Fresh, smooth taste," according to Paramount Caviar. Currently in short supply in the U.S. ($222-241 oz.)
Favorites: With Russian imports banned, wild Iranian caviar is the quality king, but farmed production from Europe is close behind. Petrossian (www.petrossian.com), Paramount (www.paramountcaviar.com), Browne Trading (www.brownetrading.com) & Marky's (www.markys.com).
Domestic Caviars (Farmed)
"Osetra" - White Sturgeon (aka Transmontanus) produces America's "Osetra." Similar to imported, but rounder and creamier. California Osetra is typically "graded" by size and color, more for appearance than flavor. ($78-114 oz.)
Hackleback Sturgeon - Black, tiny, glistening, pin-head beads. Smooth and custardy, with a slight nuttiness and pleasant salt. Often a favorite for those new to caviar. ($35 oz.)
Paddlefish (aka Spoonbill) Sturgeon - Sometimes called "American-style Sevruga". Gray to olive green color, small beads. Sharper flavor than Hackleback, favoring salt and sea to cream and egg. ($35 oz.)
Favorites: Sterling (also marketed as Petrossian) and Tsar Nicoulai. Domestic Osetra represents excellent value, 85% of the flavor for 1/3 the price. Hackleback and Paddlefish are a small step down in quality for an even bigger step down in price.
Pairings: Over 200 experiments unearthed some surprises. Champagne and vodka are tradition-bound choices, but add little beyond ritual. Great champagne and great caviar taste better apart than together. Two that do work: Laurent-Perrier Rosé and Altemasi.
Sake (g Saké and Momokawa Diamond) pairs wonderfully as it should, once we remember that caviar is seafood. The sweetness of Ice Wines (Jackson-Triggs Proprietors Reserve and Inniskillin Riesling) produces a wonderful offset to caviar's salt, as does a chilled Chateau Julien Rosato.
Roes - Caviar's cousin.
Trout - Pale orange ball-bearing-size beads. Light flavor reminiscent of smoked trout. Firm casing and pleasant liquid burst. ($10 oz.)
Salmon - Brighter orange (think jello) and stronger flavor than trout. Fish and salt with notes of lox. "Keta" salmon roe (aka"red caviar") is still available from Russia. ($6 oz.)
Whitefish - Tiny, pin tip, crunchy eggs. Vapid flavor, so this roe is typically infused (see below). ($5 oz.)
Favorites: Petrossian & Tsar Nicoulai (www.tsarnicoulai.com)
Pairings: Beer, such as Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout, brings a nice counterpoint to the smoked fish flavors.
Infused Roes - Simple roes with flavor added. Caviar's spirited cousin, twice removed.
Beet & Saffron Whitefish - Naturally infused red color. Hint of saffron and tiny tad of beet in a salt brine. ($23.50 2 oz.)
Wasabi Whitefish -Pale green. Strong blast of wasabi flavor. Make this your last taste. ($23.50 2 oz.)
Ginger Whitefish - Pale yellow. Ginger is dominant without overpowering. ($23.50 2 oz.)
Truffled Whitefish - Burnished brown. Pleasant truffle flavor. Begs for creative presentation. ($23.50 2 oz.)
Favorites: Tsar Nicoulai
Pairings: Infused roes offer novelty and flexibility, creating pairings as varied as your imagination. Wasabi and Ginger roes paired well with English Stout (Samuel Smith's) and Sake (Momokawa Diamond).
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(Updated: 07/17/13 MG)