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Epicurean

Connoisseur’s Guide to Caviar

Black caviar
Written by Aksel Ritenis

Black caviar

Caviar has always been the delicacy of aristocrats and sophisticated gourmands. Even though nowadays you can buy black or red caviar in many stores they are nowhere near a match to the real thing. There are more than 400 species of sturgeon in the world but only three of them – Beluga, Oscierte, Sevruga (Huso Huso, A gueldenstaedi, A sellatus – in Latin) which inhabit the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea are used to obtain caviar.

 

The caviar has four types. The first – the Golden or Royal caviar – is the most exclusive, the most expensive, the rarest and the most difficult to obtain. In former times it was specially saved for consummation by the Russian czars, Manchurian imperators and the Vatican only. Until quite recently in Iran this caviar was exclusively delivered for the Sheik alone, but if someone else was caught eating the Royal caviar he was punished by cutting off his right hand.

There is no single notion about the origins of the Royal caviar – some consider that it is acquired from the Oscierte sturgeons that are over 60 years old and in the course of time their caviar gain a pale golden shade, as the flavour becomes smooth, creamy and tender. Others in their turn believe that the Royal caviar is obtained from the Beluga or Oscierte sturgeons – albinos whose caviar is in an offwhite colour. The sturgeon – albino caviar is very expensive because these fish are extremely rare even though in taste the albino caviar very slightly differs from the pale Oscierte sturgeon’s caviar.

The next one is the Oscierte sturgeon caviar (A gueldenstaedi) which in its way is the most interesting because it has the widest range of caviar sizes, colours and flavours. These sturgeons produce caviar at the age of 12–15. The caviar of the youngest individuals is large with a dark golden shade. When the sturgeons get older the colour of their caviar fades to light amber and the flavour gets tenderer. Some say that when the fish get older they become smarter and dive to the bottom of the sea and, to avoid fishermen, bury themselves in mud and seaweed which in its turn affect the taste both of the sturgeons and their caviar.

The Beluga sturgeon (Huso Huso) is the biggest and the only one that is a carnivore. It is so rare that the number of Beluga sturgeons caught each year in the Caspian Sea rarely surpasses a hundred. These fish mature only at the age of 25–40, which is also when they start producing caviar, which is the third caviar type. The Beluga sturgeons carry caviar that weighs about 25% of their mass but there have also been some cases when a sturgeon carries caviar that weighs 50% of its mass. The Beluga sturgeons are highly valued for their big, granular caviar with fine shells. The shades of the caviar vary from light grey to almost black but the most highly valued caviar is the light grey one.

The forth caviar type is obtained from the Sevruga sturgeons (A sellatus) that start producing caviar at the age of 7–10. The vast majority are caught at the age of 8–22 because this is the time when their caviar is considered the best. The Sevruga caviar is a greyish black colour with a fine-grained structure and comparatively the most salty one in taste. In the midst of the connoisseurs this caviar is highly appreciated, especially for its unique flavour. This is the most common and comparatively the “cheapest” caviar because the Sevruga sturgeons are more common than the other sturgeons that are used to acquire caviar; furthermore they start producing caviar at a much younger age.

Of course, you can enjoy the caviar from a glass bowl with a plastic spoon, however, the aesthetes and gourmands prefer an artist’s created caviar set which is influenced by the aura of expensiveness and rareness that dictates this delicacy. Fabergé has created golden, malachite, lapis lazuli and amber spoons, others have used pearl-shell, tortoise-shell or polished wood. Many Russian and French silversmiths, refined glasscutters and fashion designers in their times have created delicate and expensive caviar sets – even Louis Vuitton has created a marvellous caviar picnic set!

Nevertheless whichever brand dishes you choose there are a few rules that need to be followed if you truly wish to enjoy the exquisite taste of caviar:

remove the caviar from the fridge 10–15 minutes or not more than an hour before serving, but do not open the box or jar until the last moment because air and warmth are caviar’s enemies;
if you have a special caviar serving set, put it into a bigger basin filled with ice to cool it, and fill it with caviar only at the last moment;
never congeal caviar, frozen they will split and will be unusable;
use bone, pearl-shell, golden or even plastic spoons but never use metal or silver spoons because as a result of oxidation the caviar will substantially change its flavour;
take the caviar from the bowl it is served in dipping the spoon in vertically from the top to bottom – never spoon the caviar like, for example, a porridge because in that way the caviar shells will be damaged;
serve the caviar separately to each person, however, it should not be kept open for more than one hour – the caviar putrefies under the influence of air and loses its flavour characteristics. Caviar appetizer recipe

Considering that Russia is the major caviar market the most popular combination is ice cold vodka and caviar. Before consuming you can put the vodka in the icebox because it does not freeze but becomes thick as syrup. A snifter of vodka and caviar – a classic! Milder beverage lovers can enjoy caviar with dry white wine or champagne. A fresh white burgundy, for example, “Chablis”, “Pouilly Fuissé”, or Fumé as well as some New World “Chardonnay” will be ideal, however, beware of a typical oaky flavour which will be too saturated and spicy and will overwhelm the flavour of caviar. Vodka fanciers should try this classic caviar cocktail: pour icy cold vodka in a glass removed from the icebox and drop a teaspoon of caviar into the glass, wait until the caviar settles at the bottom before drinking. You will sense that the simplicity of vodka is replaced by the caviar’s mildly salty texture and flavour.

 

Article written by Staff Correspondent, Connoisseur Magazine

 

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Aksel Ritenis

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