Pearls of the Sea

published in Latitude Magazine

Caviar’s beginnings were humble indeed.  Centuries ago, the sturgeon roe was Russian peasant food; villagers eking out a living on the shores of the Caspian Sea unceremoniously scooped it from the fish’s belly and consumed ladles of it.

Over time caviar became a symbol of aristocracy and a delicacy reserved for tsars, but the rest of the world took to it only much later. Legend has it that in the early 18th century, Peter I The Great sent Louis XV a consignment of caviar.  The French King was so unimpressed that as soon as he tasted it, he sprayed the carpet at Versailles with it.

Fast forward to the 1920’s. ‘White’ Russian exiles, (who opposed the Bolshevik Red Army) living in Paris attempted to recreate their former tsarist lifestyle, with Champagne and all, but caviar was nowhere to be found.  Two enterprising students, Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian, devised a cunning scheme. They arranged for the Soviet embassy to freight in caviar, which they paid for, in francs, hard currency that the Soviets welcomed. Not long after, Paris high society began indulging in the eggs alongside the Russian émigrés. And the rest is history.

Having caviar on the table, anywhere in the world these days, heralds a distinguished moment. Of late, the amount of caviar from the Caspian Sea has diminished, due to a fall of production in the sea – mainly from over fishing and poaching.

Enter the substitutes as there are 30 species of sturgeon.  The Chinese version from farmed Kaluga sturgeon in the Amur River near Russia, is a golden coloured and nutty tasting; North America boasts eight species with the lake sturgeon producing roe somewhat similar to Sevruga caviar; and then there is host of fish eggs, peddled in supermarkets  – from the paddlefish and lumpfish to the trout ‘caviar’ and capelin roe. Whatever the claims of these upstarts, whether their eggs are an eye catching brilliant orange-red (salmon roe) or richly golden (whitefish), they are far in form and taste, from Caspian caviar, claim the purists.

The ultimate caviars are by definition – the roe of the sturgeon, from the Caspian Sea. And so, geographically, there can be only two sources– Iranian and Russian – nothing else matters despite the fact that each country will claim that their version offers the best texture and taste.

Caviar Savvy
The three original types of caviar available commercially are Beluga, Oscietre and Sevruga, named after the respective sturgeon varieties. The largest of these three is the Beluga, while the Sevruga is the smallest. Here’s the savvy.

Sevruga –  They are usually grey-black in colour, but varieties ranging in colour from yellow to grey-brown can be found. The eggs have a firm texture, and are smaller than the other two varieties. Uniquely, Sevruga is the saltiest amongst the three, but in surprising contrast, has a sweet finish. It is the least expensive grade, as the female Sevruga matures at about seven years, then it begins producing eggs. Serve Sevruga with crème fraiche on toast or incorporate with scrambled eggs. Suggested wines: An Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava or Laurent Perrier Champagne.

Oscietra –The female fish produces a wide variety of eggs and reaches maturity at the age of 12. In the early years, large eggs with mostly a dark golden shade, but can range from grey-black to deep brown are produced. Oscietra is nutty and earthy, although of course it still carries the sublimely salty, fishy taste. As the fish gets older, the roe produced is a pale amber, and in taste, is subtler. This roe is prized and should be consumed by the spoonfuls on its own. Suggested wines: A good Soave or an aged sparkling Vouvray.

Beluga – Because the sturgeons only reach maturity somewhere between 25 and 40 years of age, and they may not necessarily spawn every year, hence a huge price premium for Beluga. The eggs are large-grained, and could range in colour from a steel grey, to an almost black shade of grey. As you bite into a spoonful of Beluga, the large-grained eggs burst in an explosion of flavour in your mouth. This is the king of caviars. Served in small spoonfuls, unadorned, wines to accompany include complex Champagnes – Billecart-Salmon, Henri Giraud and Henriot.

Buying Caviar – When buying caviar, approach a reliable source. The best caviar will bear a Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) certification; beware of counterfeits, sold at a discounted price or other fish roe passed off as caviar. Cheap caviar almost always never turns out to the real thing.

The best caviars will have a ‘malossol’ tag implying it is delicately salted. Beluga is rated by zeros, with triple zero being the best whilst Ocietra/Osetra carries an A grade. Sevruga is graded one and two. Trust your taste and purchase what you like. Eggs should be whole, of the same size and colour be glistening and firm. Good caviar begins with an oceanic-like taste and finishes off nutty or fruity. Some aficionados can taste nuances of brine and copper. Caviar should never taste fishy, oily or salty. If it is, but has been served, rescue your palate and your hosts’ ego by opting for an austere wine to go with it. Pressed caviar or broken eggs is jam-like in consistency but will keep addicts with light wallets satisfied. Accompanying wine could be a sweetish German sparkling Sekt or a dry Cremant de Bourgogne.

Storage – Fresh caviar can be held unopened under refrigeration for four weeks. Pasteurized caviars will keep in the refrigerator unopened for several months. Once opened, all caviars should be consumed within two to three days.

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