Caviar! How I love the stuff! Briny little glossy balls of salty fishy elegance. Yummy!
In the course of my job as a private chef I’ve been lucky enough to have sampled some truly rare and fantastic foods — the finest white truffles, the potentially deadly fugu (blowfish), awesome oysters, fresh porcini mushrooms, sweet Maine lobsters, foie gras, toro, fresh Mediterranean sea urchin (standing in the water with a knife in my hand), a fresh peach bellini at the Cipirani in Venice, jamon iberico made from acorn-crunching black pigs, zucchini blossoms at peak season, fresh mulberries in Malibu, crisp ackee pies in Jamaica, Florida stone crabs, amazing white peaches, shockingly good apricots, and actual Kobe beef from Kobe (not Australia or Idaho, fer chrissake). But of all these unique (and generally pricey) items the thing that thrills me most might still be caviar, that glorious salted Sturgeon roe from the Caspian Sea. I love the unctuous taste, the soft and oily mouthfeel, the gentle “pop” of each tiny fish egg, and the utter rightness of each dynamite bite of the best caviar.
Sadly however, I might never eat the best ever again, perhaps for years. Perhaps never. Due to rampant, decades-long overfishing most of the world’s sturgeon population has been decimated, not surprising because of the high prices attached to this most luxurious of luxury goods. Several factors have contributed to this precipitous decline, not least of which are piracy, James Bond, and the fall of the USSR. The Soviet Union recognized that beluga caviar was a hugely significant export both economically and culturally and had a far-sighted system in place to restock the Volga River (which feeds the Caspian Sea) with young farmed sturgeon to keep the species populated. But with the fall of European communism the fate of the sturgeon in its ancient native waterways became increasing precarious, as borders and environmental regulation shifted in a morass of political upheaval. Caviar buccaneers became common and quality standards fell just as the world’s appetite for the stuff became even more fevered, fueled by caviar’s pop-culture association with a life of glamour and excess.
Fast forward a couple of decades and see where we are now. Beluga imports to America were outlawed in 2005 and since then I’ve seen Ossetra and Sevruga (previously considered substandard to beluga) sold for outrageous prices. Considerations of cost and my own growing eco-guilt have meant that I’ve rarely bought caviar or encouraged it’s consumption, even though I freakin’ love the stuff. But in the last ten years the American caviar industry has slowly replaced the famed caviars of the Caspian and Black Seas, providing a decent product for domestic consumption that is (supposedly and hopefully) more sustainable than the crumbing caviar industry of mother Russia.
I assisted on a party this past weekend and had a leftover ounce-and-a-half of this pretty respectable caviar from sustainable California white sturgeon (Royal transmontanous). Not too salty, not too fishy but flavorful, good pearl size, a bit sweet, a bit nutty, and quite a bit buttery. It reminded me of some superb Ossetra caviars I’ve had in the years before the ban. While it may never compare truly to the best beluga caviar I recall from, say, 2001, it was excellent. But fondly I remember this Tsar Imperial caviar I had once with large, pale, nearly golden eggs that exploded across my palate. I recall this shockingly good Iranian beluga with amazing flavor and groan-inducing succulence. I feel I might never taste such things ever again, due to the ravenous nature of man’s appetites.
I love caviar very simply — a schmear of creme fraiche, a little toast, maybe a lemon squeeze. I know some people enjoy the fetishization of the whole caviar ritual of the minced chives and the egg whites and egg yolks and shallots and whatever, but all those accoutrements are just meant to stretch an ounce of caviar from what is essentially a couple of hearty bites into a appetizer for two out on an anniversary dinner. If you can afford it (and I really can’t, very often) try to enjoy the flavor of the caviar. Don’t pile on a bunch of crap.
I can’t know where the caviar of the future will come from, but I suspect that Russian and Iranian caviar will get increasingly rare and expensive. Hopefully the American caviar industry will improve and gain an international reputation for taste and quality. Based on what I had a couple of days ago, American caviar has a bright future, and it won’t add to my eco-guilt. And at around $65 an ounce, it’s not the bank-breaker that caviar once seemed.
So support an American product, buy some fish eggs. Get creme fraiche, toast some bread. And enjoy a bit of elegance for a change.