July 18 is National Caviar Day, making this a good time to learn the basics of fine fish roes. The drama and culinary delight of caviar --known as black gold for its rarity and price point --bring an Old World elegance to any meal. Here is all you need to know to bring caviar into your home, whether your budget is copper or gold.
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. Roe is the mass of eggs contained in the ovaries of a female fish or shellfish.
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.
True Caviars are imported, and can be wild or farmed. They are named for their Sturgeon:
The largest freshwater fish on earth produces the largest caviar: ball-bearing-sized eggs from dark gray to black. It is currently illegal in the U.S. The Beluga is in danger of extinction.
The "Russian" Sturgeon's eggs are the size of BBs, and all the colors of camouflage, from brownish gray to dark olive. Flavors range from creamy, almost custardy, to nutty. The eggs have a salty richness and a taste of the sea. Cost: about $225 per ounce.
The "Persian" Sturgeon produces small "pinhead" black or dark gray eggs. Some connoisseurs prefer Sevruga to Beluga for the more intense flavors. It is currently in short supply in the U.S. Cost: about $225 per ounce.
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. Cost: about $100 per ounce.
5. Hackleback Sturgeon
Black, tiny, glistening, pin-head beads that are smooth and custardy, with a slight nuttiness and pleasant salt flavor. It is often a favorite for those new to caviar. Cost: about $35 per ounce.
6. Paddlefish (aka Spoonbill) Sturgeon
Sometimes called "American-style Sevruga", they are gray to olive green color, small beads. It has a sharper flavor than Hackleback, favoring salt and sea to cream and egg. Cost: about $35 per ounce.
7. 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.
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