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Nov 19, 2021
The holidays are a time for culinary indulgence; when professional chefs and home cooks get to pull out all the stops and create magnificent meals with decadent ingredients. Think Champagne, truffles (both savory and sweet), whole beef tenderloin wrapped in puff pastry, silver platters with icy cold oysters on the half shell, and copious amounts of salty, briny caviar. Not familiar with the world’s most opulent canapé? Allow us to educate you.
“Caviar, to put it simply, is salted fish eggs,” explains Petra Bergstein, the co-founder, and president of The Caviar Company. Bergstein has just returned to her San Francisco storefront after a whirlwind five days in Los Angeles. A couple of weeks ago, she got a call from Kathy Hilton, asking if The Caviar Company would cater Paris Hilton’s nuptials. “It was over-the-top and beautiful, but it wasn’t absurd, if that makes sense,” Bergstein says of the extravaganza. “It was tasteful, elegant, and classic—and everyone was so nice.” Bergstein served Hilton and her guests caviar with blini and creme fraiche, a classic combination that never goes out of style. She also shared her caviar expertise with anyone who wanted to learn about the delicacy. Here she does the same, breaking down everything you need to know to have a positive caviar consumption experience.
Think of caviar as you would champagne. It’s a luxury item produced worldwide but with various tiers of excellence. “All fish eggs are roe, but not all roe is caviar,” Bergstein explains. “It’s like the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne. To be considered Champagne, it needs to come from the Champagne region in France. For roe to be considered caviar, it needs to come from a sturgeon, which is a huge prehistoric endangered species of fish.”
What Are the Different Types of Caviar?
Beluga, Kaluga, osetra, and sevruga are a few of the types of caviar that exist. These names represent the breed of sturgeon and, in turn, the type of caviar. Like there are many breeds of dogs, there are many sturgeon breeds. “Traditionally, the most coveted would be the beluga,” Bergstein says, “but we haven’t been able to get beluga in the US for a long time now.” Beluga is the prized wild sturgeon that swim in the cold deep waters of the Caspian Sea. Americans were eating so much of it that beluga almost went extinct. To help rebuild the natural stocks, it’s no longer imported into the US. The majority of sturgeon is farmed, but paddlefish and hackleback are wild. These varietals are more like the sturgeon’s cousins—”it’s like a doodle,” Bergstein says—because they are much smaller and spawn at a young age. Hackleback and paddlefish lay their eggs between the ages of two and five, while sturgeon don’t lay eggs until they are much older, say 18 years old. Siberian sturgeon is an unsung hero—and Bergstein’s favorite. “For an imported product, $95 an ounce is not bad, and its flavor is so good. It’s smooth and sexy and nutty.”
Kaluga hybrid is the closest thing to beluga that you’ll find in the states. It’s native to the Amur River that borders China and Russia and is farmed in a lake with nets that go incredibly deep. It has a superb flavor because the water temperature is frigid. According to Bergstein, chefs like Kyle Connaughton of Single Thread and Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman of Austin’s McGuire Moorman Hospitality Group prefer to cook with Kaluga because it’s an excellent price point for the quality of flavor. Ossetra is the creme de la creme because it’s the only caviar from the Caspian Sea available in the states. “Ossetra is traditional. People recognize the name,” Bergstein says. “They know it’s a classic caviar, old school caviar, reliable caviar.”
Where Does Caviar Come From?
Caviar comes from all over the world. It’s farmed in California, Tennessee, Poland, Israel, Italy, China, and South Africa. Like salmon, sturgeon are anadromous, which means that they can exist in both fresh and saltwater; it just depends on the breed. “There are even farms in Uruguay,” says Bergstein. “Caviar is not native to the Southern hemisphere, but they’ve been able to successfully take fingerlings from the Caspian Sea and raise the fish.” The farms do their best to mimic the natural environment of the Caspian Sea, but when raising fish in open-air tanks, it’s challenging to get the depth, pressure, and temperature right. All of these elements affect the texture and flavor of the caviar.
Is Farmed Caviar Sustainable?
Most caviar is sustainably farmed. The Caviar Company prefers to work with farmers who have their own broodstock (a group of sexually mature fish bred together) because it allows the farmers to control the entire process, resulting in higher quality caviar. Some sturgeon become broodstock, and others, the females once pregnant, are killed during the egg harvest. “Throughout their lives, the fish are filtered. As soon as you can determine the sex, the males are separated from the females,” Bergstein explains. “If they find out it’s a male, they go ahead and use it for meat, and sturgeon meat is a great product—you can eat up to 80 percent of the sturgeon. Whereas with salmon, you only use 40 percent of the fish.”
Purchase caviar from a trusted source—a place like The Caviar Company that works with the farmers to ensure that the product is handled correctly and labeled. Bergstein says the caviar industry is plagued by mislabeling. If you ever see the words California Ossetra, don’t buy it. “There’s no such thing,” she says. “There’s no Ossetra farmed in California.” She says to avoid buying caviar from a grocery store because sometimes they will pasteurize the product to provide a longer shelf life. “Whenever you do that quick flash of heat to kill the bacteria, you might get a longer shelf life, but you compromise the quality of the caviar. You suck out the oils, decadence, and richness.” Look for caviar that has a four to six-week-long shelf life—this will ensure it is super fresh.
What Should You Consider When Purchasing Caviar?
The first thing you’ll notice when purchasing caviar is the price. It can be expensive. Hackleback and paddlefish are the least expensive products because they come from a young fish; the resulting caviar is less decadent. It’s a small, mild egg. “When grading caviar, look at the eggs, says Bergstein. “The larger the eggs, the more valuable the caviar. The lighter color of the eggs, the more valuable the caviar. You have to have an older fish to get those large plump eggs with the best texture and creamy, buttery flavor.” In terms of quantity, Bergstein recommends one ounce per person. If you hire a person to serve the caviar, one ounce might serve two people, but if you are letting guests serve themselves, it’s better to have more than less. “If it’s self-serve, double the quantities.”
What Do You Need to Enjoy Caviar?
While a vintage serving dish is fabulous, the only thing you need to enjoy caviar is a pearl spoon. Metal, silver in particular, makes caviar taste metallic and changes its flavor for the worse. A pearl spoon ensures that you taste the pureness of the caviar. Keep the caviar very cold by placing the tin in a bowl of ice.
Bergstein loves how Hilton chose to serve caviar at her wedding, with pre-made blini and a tiny dollop of creme fraiche. Minced onions, sieved eggs, capers, lemon, potato chips, etc., are often served with caviar but aren’t necessary and will only mask, rather than enhance, the roe’s flavor. To eat caviar alone without a spoon, ask for a “bump.” Make your hand into a fist and place a teaspoon on the back of your hand near your knuckle. Your skin will warm the caviar slightly and let it release its aromatic oils. Lick the caviar off your hand and finish with a shot of vodka. Enjoy it before dinner as an appetizer or use it to garnish an entree, say a creamy pasta dish. “Caviar is a pre-dinner thing because it’s a nice way to elevate the night. It gets you thinking, ‘tonight’s going to be awesome. We’re starting with caviar. It’s going to be great,'” says Bergstein.
Another classic way to serve caviar? Piled high on a baked potato with sour cream—Jackie O’s favorite way of enjoying it. Caviar is also excellent on top of softly scrambled or deviled eggs, crustless buttered toast points, and rich fish preparations like scallops in leek sauce.
What Should You Drink With Caviar?
Champagne and vodka are the traditional caviar drink pairings. Champagne is festive and cuts the caviar’s richness, while vodka balances out the caviar’s salinity. Try both and see which you prefer.
Store caviar in the fridge for up to six weeks. Once open, it should be consumed in its entirety.
What Makes Caviar Taste Good?
“Good caviar should never be too salty or too fishy,” says Bergstein. It should be well-balanced and have a clean, fresh taste. Look for a high-quality producer, taste the various kinds, and find which best suits your palate.