True caviar, the kind that gets connoisseurs all hot and bothered, is sieved and finely salted roe of sturgeon. Elegant and surprisingly intense, these small, perfect pearls that delicately release the rich flavor of the sea on your tongue triggers an experience so sensuous and uplifting, serious caviar lovers insist the only way to enjoy it is straight and unadorned.
The world’s finest caviar comes from three varieties of sturgeon, and only when harvested from the coldest waters of the Caspian Sea. From this spot, where East meets West, bordered by both Russia and Iran, Russians have been harvesting sturgeon since the 13th century. And they were still at it 700 years later. It’s said that in the 1940s, disgruntled British soldiers stationed around the area complained about being fed too much of “these ‘ere fish jam.”
The Russians prized sturgeon so highly that they called it Krasnaya Ryba, literally “beautiful fish.”
Sturgeon masters were employed. The rarest and most exquisite variety, Golden Osetra, from the beautiful amber-hued eggs of the albino sturgeon, was reserved for the czar and, later, for the shah of Iran. Peasants could make do with payusnaya, a caviar paste made from damaged or overly mature roe. But, whether noble or peasant, it’s safe to say that the Russians fell in love with caviar—hence the romantic stereotype of Moscow’s vodka-swilling, caviar-scarfing inhabitants, à la Dr. Zhivago.
If you want to dine on quality caviar these days, it’s hard to top Petrossian, the Paris-based purveyors of some of the finest Iranian and Russian caviar in the world. Petrossian is a venerable name in the caviar business, dating back to the 1920s when brothers Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian, émigrés from Russia, decided to import caviar from their native Russia. They belong, by the way, to one of the five Russian families known to have created the caviar industry in the 19th century. Today, Petrossian restaurants in Paris, New York, and even Sao Paulo offer a nuanced menu with interesting dishes like sturgeon confit, Petrossian jell-o, or the classic caviar egg with all the traditional accompaniments.
But, you can order quality caviar in all the capitals of the world these days. Chefs at a high-end New York restaurant say that even on a quiet evening they serve anywhere from six to ten kilos of black roe. The traditional Russian way of eating it two ways—dusted with flour and fried, or cold and raw with vinegar, pepper, and onion—have been supplanted by the thousand and one ways the delicacy is now served.
Whether balanced on luxurious hors d’oevres, stuffed into tomatoes, sitting beside smoked salmon, as dressing for lobster and shellfish, the centuries have not dimmed the world’s obsession for caviar. The menu has clearly changed, but not, apparently, the passion and addiction for caviar.
All you really need is a can (preferably beluga), a spoon and some crushed ice
* Place the can of caviar on top of the crushed ice.
* Use a spoon made of glass, ceramic, bone, wood, plastic, or the traditional mother-of-pearl or gold. Never use silver or stainless steel because they change the flavor of the roe.
* Pile your caviar on toast, crackers, or blini.
* Wash down with a straight shot of frozen vodka or Champagne. If you like, you can eat it with butter, hard-cooked eggs (keep whites and yolks separate), sour cream, or lemon. But fine caviar is perfect on its own.
By Troy Barrios