I’ll be the first to admit that growing up the thought of caviar made me go “Euew” but then I learned better, or just got a bit smarter. I cannot even tell you when it started, it snuck up on me and thank goodness! Ever since then I’ve been having fun experimenting, but I am a long way from being an expert. However, since I find myself in the “Little Russia” section of San Francisco, and practically every corner market has some sort of caviar product, I feel compelled to sample them all.
What is Caviar?
Caviar is the processed, salted roe (eggs) of the sturgeon roe. The roe can be “fresh” (non-pasteurized) or pasteurized, the latter having much less culinary and economic value, but a longer shelf life. Caviar labeled with the word “malossol” indicates that the roe is preserved with a minimum amount of salt, malossol being the Russian for “little salt.” Caviar is extremely perishable and must be refrigerated immediately until consumption. Pasteurized caviar is roe that has been partially cooked, making it less perishable, but the eggs have a slightly different texture, as a result its not as expensive. Pressed caviar is composed of damaged or fragile eggs and can be a combination of several different roes. It is treated, salted, and pressed into its packaging.
What’s In a Name?
Depending on the national laws of the country, the name caviar may also describe the roe of other fish such as salmon, steelhead, trout, lumpfish, whitefish, and any number other species of sturgeon. The term is also used to describe dishes that are perceived to resemble caviar, such as “eggplant caviar” (made from eggplant (aubergine), Yorkshire caviar from the UK made with mushy peas, and “Texas caviar” (black-eyed peas).
However, if you are in the United States, and the roe is from any fish other than the Acipenseriformes species (including Acipenseridae, or sturgeon stricto sensu, and Polyodontidae or paddlefish) it is not caviar, but “substitutes of caviar” according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. This stance is also adopted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the United States Customs Service, and the Republic of France. Another labeling method is to call it caviar of “insert name of fish” to distinguish it from the true sturgeon caviar. So as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so is caviar.
Beluga – This roe is the rarest and most expensive, from the beluga sturgeon (Huso huso) living in the Caspian Sea. This roe is prized for its soft (rich and silky) and relatively large (pea sized) eggs which range in color from pale silver gray to black. Generally, the lighter the color, the more expensive the roe. The grades are: 0 (darkest color), 00 (medium toned), and 000 (lightest color), with the 000 grade as the most expensive and sometimes referred to as “royal caviar”. These large fish (up to 30 feet in length and over a ton) are remarkably long-lived (up to 100 years), but unfortunately, their longevity and late maturing make them especially susceptible to the effects of pollution.
Sterlet – This caviar with served to Russian czars, Iranian shahs and Austrian emperors.
Osstra – This highly prized medium sized caviar runs the gamut from brown to gray, with a taste often described as nutty and strong. This roe is the most common of the wild caviar and comes mostly from the Black and Azov Seas.
Sevuga – Considered low on the quality pole, this gray roe is serviceable, with a less distinctive flavor. Its probably no coincidence that its also the most common and its lower price point reflects this fact.
Wild caviar production survives only in Azerbaijan and Iran as Russia maintains a self-imposed ban on caviar trade from wild sturgeon. Farmed sturgeon farms are now producing good caviar to fill the gap, as has the rise in popularity of those “substitutes of caviar” alternatives. The decline in sturgeon is the result of two powerful colliding forces: overfishing and the rise in pollution in the Caspian Sea.
In the early 1900s, Canada and the United States were the major caviar suppliers to Europe; roe was harvested from the lake sturgeon in the American midwest, and from the Shortnose sturgeon and the Atlantic sturgeon spawned in the rivers of the Eastern United States. Today the Shortnose sturgeon is listed as an endangered species.
Other Questions that Must Be Asked
How many fish eggs does a fish produce?
A lot, as many as 20,000 for a single salmon, and several million for a sturgeon, carp or shad.
What’s the difference between bottarga and caviar?
Bottarga is the heavily salted fish eggs that have been pressed and dried. The salt here not so much to flavor but to act as a preservative. Its a concentration of flavor like no other, and is served thinly sliced as an antipasto or on a pasta. Additionally, its not the roe of sturgeon but most likely grey mullet or tuna. On the other hand, caviar are lightly salted, highly perishable fish eggs, that due to their delicate nature are usually served as the focal point of flavor.
When did folks start eating caviar?
According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, caviar was first consumed about 1200 AD as a more palatable alternative to sturgeon ovaries. He further goes on to say that only 150 years ago sturgeon was so plentiful that a cookbook writer suggested using it to clarify bouillons and to decorate sauerkraut “so that it appeared to be strewn with poppy seeds.” Less than 50 years after that remark, around 1900 hundred, sturgeon was driven to near extinction from overfishing, dams, and hydroelectric plants, and addition challenges such as pollution have not helped.
What’s the deal with the borax?
Some countries (not the US) allow borax to replace some of the salt giving the caviar a sweeter taste and improving its shelf life.
What about that roe on my sushi?
Chances are its flying fish eggs, those small, yellow, though often dyed orange or black and crunchy. In Japan its called tobiko.
Just One Bite
High quality caviar is consumed in a way that allows the eater to focus on the experience the full flavor and texture of the roe. In some respects it can seem almost ceramonial with the mother-of pearl and gold utensils – just make sure its not stainless steel or silver as that will taint the flavor – plastic is even preferable.
Beyond Toast Points
In Scandinavia and Finland, a significantly cheaper version of caviar, made from mashed, smoked cod roe (smörgåskaviar or sandwich caviar), is sold in tubes as a sandwich filling. When sold outside Scandinavia, the product is referred to as creamed smoked roe or in French as Caviar de Lysekil, named after the Swedish coastal town of Lysekil, where this spread is thought to have originated. A favorite sandwich is the roe spread with hardboiled eggs. I found this tube at the World Market in Minneapolis.
Regardless of your preference, this tasty treat of the sea has made many a celebration seem more festive, and hopefully will continue to do so.