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Unraveling the Mystique of Caviar: A Comprehensive Guide

A little ‘what’ and ‘where’ about caviar, and how you can enjoy it.

In the twenty years that I owned my restaurants you wouldn’t believe how many times I was asked, “What is caviar?” It’s a delicacy, to be sure, but it’s also one way to start a conversation during a champagne tasting party (or maybe vodka?).

The correct definition for caviar is that it is the harvested, cured and salted eggs (roe) of wild sturgeon, a white meat fish. If you want to add some history, you would add that the caviar had to be harvested from wild sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea. But the fact is, caviar can also come from sturgeon all over the Northern Hemisphere.  Caviar (or technically caviar substitute) can also come from salmon, steelhead, trout, lumpfish, whitefish and even carp.

As for purely sturgeon caviar, there are three species: Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga, all of which can be found in BOTH fresh and salt water bodies. The fish themselves can be very large, reportedly over 18 feet long, can weigh more than a ton and can live on average 50-60 years! The sturgeon flesh is very edible, usually found in stores canned or frozen, but the big value are the eggs.

Between the three types of sturgeon caviar, the beluga is the rarest, most well-known, definitely the most expensive. Some say that beluga has the best taste. But not all caviar – even beluga – is equal to the label “the best.” Good caviar can be very expensive. You’ll want to pay close attention to the classification found on the label.

The highest quality class of sturgeon caviar will say “Malassol.” This caviar will have less than 5 percent salt content – often as little as 3.5%. For people who don’t mind the salty taste there’s also “Payusnaya” caviar which is made from too-soft, damaged, broken and overly ripe eggs.  It is highly treated, highly salted (can contain 10%) and pressed to a jam-like consistency, and is less expensive but, for some who like its strong, concentrated flavor it can be a favorite.

If you want a little more history to add to your table talk, you might mention that near the end of the 1800s American caviar production really peaked. So much caviar was produced that it was cheap enough for many American bars to serve it to encourage more beer drinking. Think about how bars use peanuts or other salty snacks today. Imagine, caviar at peanut prices.

By 1915, the Atlantic surgeon on the East coast and the white sturgeon on the West were fished out. Fisheries closed down and the sturgeon didn’t return to sport fishing until the 1950s. When over fishing again became a problem, U.S. importation of caviar was briefly banned in 2005. Fishing for Beluga sturgeon was again banned between 2008 to 2011.

Many countries produce caviar with some producing “farmed” caviar: Iran, Canada, Israel, Italy, Spain, the U.S., and England among others. The bans for caviar from wild Beluga sturgeon are now partially lifted and you can purchase it online or in stores.  Just know it’s the most expensive of all the caviars.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, I recommend Petrossian – and if you don’t live in either New York or Los Angeles where they have actual stores you can always order it from their 15-year-old online store.

Want a little more adventure?

How about caviar at your own Champagne and vodka tasting party? Ready?



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