Advice For Tasting Caviar

A few notices, curiosities and some advice for tasting caviar a delicacy originating in Russia but nowadays imitated and produced almost everywhere.

Like it or not, everyone knows that it is a Russian specialty, inseparable from vodka... The word, however, is of Turkish origin: "Kawiar" became "caviale" in Italian, then "caviar" in French, all this before the Russians even arrived upon the Volga River or the Caspian Sea in the 16th century. Before the word entered into the Russian lexicon, roe from all fish, including the sturgeon and salmon, was referred to as "ikra", a word of Slavic origins decidedly.

The first to consume caviar were Muslims living in the Caspian region, who had to content themselves with the eggs due to their religion prohibiting them from eating sturgeon meat. There is no question, however, that the Russian czars and their subjects made up for lost time in consuming sturgeon roe. After the fall of the Soviet Union caviar was no longer produced exclusively in Russia and Iran but also in Azerbaidjan, Kazakistan and Turkmenistan. In other words, it was also produced by the nations along the banks of the Caspian Sea who rushed to take advantage of the prolific riches of the Caspian. According to experts, the pressure exerted by these nations combined with the ecological disasters of the Volga River and the Caspian Sea will bring about, in 7-10 years the near-complete disappearance of black-caviar. Enjoy it while it lasts!

Caviar can be fresh, not sterilized, thereby fully preserving its flavour. Fresh caviar, however, must be kept refrigerated and has a limited duration, from 2 to 6 months, depending on the type of manufacturing. Sterilized caviar has a long preservation time, it usually comes in a glass jar and can be kept for a longer time at room temperature, but it definitely loses its flavour. The eggs of the Beluga are the largest and reach 2.5 millimetres in diameter. They are considered the most valuable when they have clear shadings; those of the Sevruga are instead the smallest (about 1 millimetre), but they are characterized by an enhanced flavour; Osetra (about 2 millimetres) vaguely recalls the taste of walnut, has a clear green-grey colour and a gilded quality. Sterlet caviar was only eaten by the families of the SciĆ  and the Zar.

The sturgeon (Acipenser sturio) is a prehistoric lance like fish with very small, fine scales and an elongated snout with four tactile feelers at the tip. The beluga sturgeon (Huso huso) is the largest, weighing up to 400 Kg and measuring up to 4 meters in length. It is extremely rare (fewer than 100 are caught per year) and varies in colour from a clear grey to black. The osetra sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii colchicus) weighs up to 200 Kg and measures up to 2 meters. The sevruga sturgeon (Acipenser stellatus) is very thin, weighing up to 30 Kg and measuring up to 1.5 meters. Beluga caviar can comprise up to 15% of the sturgeon's weight! The beluga sturgeon is a wild and robust fish and is hard to catch. It travels to the streams to lay its eggs only every 2-4 years.
There are numerous kinds of jars and tins of caviar, the most well known being Beluga (blue tin), whose grey eggs are appraised by clarity, the clearest being of highest value (000 clear grey, 00 medium grey, 0 dark grey). Next is Osetra (yellow tin), the eggs are also grey but smaller than Beluga, with a nutty flavour. A highly refined type of Osetra is also known as Golden Royal and was prized by Russian czars. Karaburun eggs vary in colour from amber-yellow to greyish yellow. Finally, the most common and least expensive type, while delicious nonetheless when fresh and authentic, is Sevruga (red tin). It is always preferable to select your confections behind glass, so as to be able to verify its quality (shine, colour, consistency), as well as the expiration date.

The flavour of caviar is fine, delicate, rich of tonality, with a precise aroma, and probably among the best of gourmet food. For this reason, the best way to taste caviar is to eat it alone, possibly after being chilled on ice in its container, opened just before eating. For the best taste, use a non-metallic teaspoon made of something like bone or nacre. Above all else it must be tasted without lemon, which alters its real flavour! An elegant coupling with the four caviar varieties can be realized using whipped butter with vodka, minced scallion (sweetened in water), minced hard-boiled egg (yellow and white).

Carefully spread caviar on thin slices of lightly toasted and buttered bread. Warm blinis (Russian crepes), spread with whipped cream, are also particularly good accompaniment.

To top it all off, a glass of ice-cold vodka, making sure to drink it only at the end in order to avoid numbing the palate while tasting the caviar.

If you do not like caviar at all, at least try eggplant caviar, which is nothing more than a mash of eggplant pulp!
95% of the caviar produced in the world comes from sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea by Russian and Iranian fishermen. The remaining 5% is produced in China, the USA, France and also Italy. Widespread opinion holds that the most valuable caviar is the Iranian. This is because the Caspian Sea is deeper on the Iranian side, never freezing, crossed by currents that oxygenate its waters, with a gravely bottom as opposed to the muddier bottom on the Russian side. In Iran, female sturgeon fishing is under the supervision of Cites, the international regulatory body overseeing its quantity and quality. For this reason caviar lovers widely agree that the best caviar is Iranian. The sturgeon's preferred habitat is in much deeper and warmer waters than those of the Iranian banks of the Caspian. So the Iranian fishermen set up their nets far from shore, allowing them to catch the females before they begin their journey to the river mouths that feed into the Caspian. The sturgeon is then anesthetized and the caviar is extracted by an entirely manual process which includes caesarean, the separation of the eggs by dimension and then cleaning. Once the eggs have been selected and categorized they are salted and packaged. Packing is a very delicate operation. In fact, after having filled the containers, the lid is put on with utmost caution; light pressure is applied with the hand so that any entrapped air exits the container. An airtight rubber seal is then finally put on the lid. The oily liquid that usually comes out of the containers during storage is a sign of its freshness.

The Russians, meanwhile, are forced to wait for the females to arrive at the mouth of the Volga to fish them, by which time the eggs have matured further, losing many of the qualities that are said to make the Iranian caviar better (crunchy skin, defined grain etc). It is also worth noting that the Iranian method of anesthetizing the fish allows it to be brought to the collection points where the caesarean is performed alive, so as to ensure maximum freshness of the eggs. Sturgeon fishing season starts in February and ends in May, but the best quality caviar is produced in the spring.

Although Russian caviar is more commercialized, the uniformity of the grain, the crunchy skin, the dodecagonal shape (as opposed to spherical) and a much defined grain (not sticky) of the Iranian caviar render it the preferred caviar among chefs worldwide.

Fresh caviar can be recognized by odour, which carries a hint of the sea in it, and its delicate taste. Any fishy odour or spicy taste immediately signals that the caviar is not fresh. The grain must be well defined, in the shape of a dodecagon, not sticky and without any surrounding liquid. The tin should be tightly packed, without any empty space under the lid. If the caviar is not fresh or has been exposed to heat the rupturing of the grains causes liquid to form and the quality to diminish.

From a dietetic point of view, it is a nutritive food, rich in proteins, fats, phospholipids and lecithin. It provides 280 Kcal. per 100 g of product. contains considerable amounts of the vitamins A, C, PP, B2, B4 and B12 as well as both folic and pantothenic acids. As for proteins it contains arginine, istidine, leucine, lysine, and methionine all essential amino acids.

The most expensive and very rare caviar is the Almas, packaged in 24 karat gold tins and sold at up to $24,000 per kg! Its whitish colour is due to the age of the sturgeon from which it is harvested and its flavour is marvellous.

Caviar is said to bear aphrodisiacal qualities.

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About The Author, David Russo Vmd, Phd
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