upload_-1-4Deep in the heart of Central Asia there is a vast body of water known as the Caspian Sea.  It is the world’s largest lake, within whose waters live strange-looking prehistoric fish that sometimes grow to the size of whales and whose eggs are rightly known as the king of foods and the food of kings.

No Russian New Year’s celebration would be complete without red and black caviar.

Now, before you jump down my throat for being a pretentious out-of-touch elitist insensitive of the cares of ordinary people, hear me out.  Let’s talk about black caviar, in particular.

In the West, caviar is overwhelmingly perceived as a prestige food.  It is a mark of status, not something to be enjoyed. Russians, by contrast, perceive caviar as a treat to be enjoyed once, maybe a couple of times a year.  That is why, even when my family and I were recent arrivals in the States (in the middle of a recession, no less) and miserably poor, my mother would still scrounge and save all year so we could have caviar for the Holidays.  Our culture also lives with the memory and the realization that, for environmental reasons, caviar is a lot scarcer today than it once was.  There was a time, believe it or not, perhaps as recently as a hundred years ago, when people in certain parts of the world really could carelessly heap caviar on blini, just like you see in old marketing posters.  It is something we are anxious about losing, and so we treat it with respect.

The Western perception of caviar as a rich jerk’s way to flaunt his wealth is the reason people in America and Europe have no idea what to do with it.  Celebrated chefs use it as a condiment.  They spoon it gingerly on seared scallops, on omelets, on hot dogs, on pizza. When I see that, I want to strangle the chef, because believe me, my friends, this is a vulgarian’s way of doing caviar. Caviar has a complex, delicate flavor, that gets completely overwhelmed by everything else on the plate.

So while I encourage you to eat caviar (and at least try black caviar if you’ve never had it), let  me make a few things clear:

First, caviar is not a condiment.  It is not an add-on, it is not a flavoring agent, and it is not a “finishing touch”.  However you decide to serve it, it must be the centerpiece, not a companion.

The best way to enjoy caviar is the same way you enjoy ice-cream: with a spoon.  If you must use a vehicle, use something delicate, such as blini with creme fraiche or lightly buttered, non-toasted baguette slices.  (One way Russians serve red caviar is to hardboil eggs, slice them lengthwise, scoop out the yolks and fill the white halves with caviar — so I suppose you can make a version of deviled eggs like this, as long as whatever you fill the egg whites with underneath the caviar is not too strongly flavored.)

Second, some caviar basics.  Red caviar comes from salmons and pink trout.  Black caviar comes from sturgeon.  There are three species of sturgeon that bear caviar: beluga (most expensive), sevruga (a little less expensive) and ossetra (least expensive).   The difference in price has nothing to do with the quality of caviar supplied by the three different species.  In fact, I like the flavor of ossetra best.  Rather, the pricing is entirely due to the relative rarity of the species and the difficulty of farming them.  (Oh yeah, most black caviar you buy today is farmed.  More on that later.)

Third, if you’ve never had caviar, you must absolutely try it.  Not in a restaurant, where they will ruin it and charge you a 1000% mark-up, but at home.  Look for deals, but buy from a reputable caviar shop.

Q&A:

Q: Why is black caviar so durned expensive?

A: Sturgeon takes a very long time to mature.  In the wild, beluga can take as long as 20 years, sevruga 10, ossetra 7-8.  It is also a very difficult – and therefore expensive — fish to farm.  The costs of producing caviar are enormous.  By the way, the fact that sturgeons grow so slowly means that of course the Caspian region is horribly overfished, and these fish are endangered.  In fact, fishing in the region is now very severely restricted.  Most Russian caviar comes from sturgeons farmed in Siberia or, to a lesser extent, wild-caught in Siberia or the Russian Far East where ossetras, at least, have been successfully introduced.  There are also a few sturgeon farms in the United States that raise ossetra sustainably, although the American caviar industry is in its infancy compared to the Russians.

Q: Okay, what’s expensive?

A: Prices vary, of course, but I always get a 150g (about 3 tablespoons) jar of Amur ossetra caviar, which sets me back $135.  The same amount of caviar from wild-caught Siberian ossetra is $100 more.  The same amount of sevruga caviar: about $350.  Beluga: dunno, but definitely a lot more.  I’ve tried them all, though, and ossetra is my favorite. Red caviar costs between $30 and $40 per pound.

Q: What does black caviar taste like?

A: Like the very concept of deliciousness distilled into a physical essence.  That’s the best way I can describe it.

Q: Is there anything similar to black caviar that’s not quite so expensive?

A: There is probably fake caviar in the canned fish section of your supermarket.  It’s black, it stains the lips, and it is to real caviar what imitation crabmeat is to crabmeat.  In fact, it’s worse, because fake black caviar tastes like plastic and ink, and does not even remotely resemble caviar.

A caviar shop might be able to help you, though.  Paddlefish caviar is very delicious, although different from, and not quite as good as, the real thing.  It’s also, while more reasonable priced, not exactly cheap — at $80 per pound, it’s double what you would pay for top-of-the-line red caviar.

Bon appetit.

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