Whether you're in the United States or Europe, a luxury treat that tastes like no other, caviar is an exquisite delight capable of making anybody’s palate dance with joy. Over the last hundreds of years, caviar has been considered high-end, enjoyed only by the wealthy for the heavy price tag that comes along with it. Many people have never even had the opportunity to taste caviar but know what it looks like due to seeing it once or twice in a Hollywood film or on a menu at an upscale restaurant. Eating caviar is a unique food experience that has a taste unlike any other, but what is it? Caviar is a type of fish roe. Roe, simply put, is another word for fish eggs. However, not all roe is created equal, classifying it as the delicacy we know today, caviar. So, where exactly does caviar come from?
A sturgeon is a large fish that can grow over 1000 pounds which can be found swimming in freshwater or saltwater dating back over 200 million years ago. There are 27 species of sturgeon belonging to the Acipenseridae family, typically found in the Iranian Caspian Sea and the Siberian Black Sea. Caviar is unfertilized fish eggs, or roe that come from wild sturgeon. Roe refers to any and all fish eggs, including those from trout, paddlefish, salmon, and flying fish, for an example, but only roe from a sturgeon is true caviar. Although there are 27 species of sturgeon, the highest quality caviar comes from the Beluga and Kaluga (also known as the River Beluga Sturgeon), Osetra, white sturgeon, and Sevruga. These are just a few of the sturgeon species.
HISTORY OF CAVIAR
Believe it or not, caviar was once reserved strictly for the king only served to those of royalty, but later in America during the nineteenth century, caviar was casually served as a part of a free lunch! So, what happened? The American caviar industry took off in 1873 when a German immigrant named Henry Schancht opened a business catching sturgeon on the Delaware River, which runs through Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. The west coast soon followed and began harvesting sturgeon roe from as well, but from the Columbia River. At that time, the waters in America were abundant with sturgeon caviar making the US the largest caviar producer and exporter of caviar in the world!
In the 1900s, sturgeon populations were so overfished that it nearly met extinction. The sudden shortage caused a massive increase in the price of caviar due to how rare it was starting to become. By the 1960s, prices were so extreme that new sources of domestic caviar were sought. Today, out of the 27 species of sturgeon in the world, 18 of them are endangered species due to overfishing.
HOW IS CAVIAR HARVESTED?
When it comes to caviar, timing is everything. A female sturgeons’ eggs are the most taut and flavorful three days before she is ready to spawn. If you take the eggs too early, the eggs can taste gooey and won’t have that trademark “pop” in your mouth when eaten. If the eggs are taken too late, they tend to be a mushy mess making the timing crucial to perfecting caviar. Harvesting the eggs is a very time-consuming and delicate process because it is often done manually. Roe is fragile and can easily be damaged. The roe sacks are then opened and rubbed across mesh screens to separate the eggs from the membrane. The eggs are then rinsed with cold water and are salted. After several hours, the eggs, which are now caviar, are drained, graded, and packed into small containers with airtight lids keeping fresh for roughly two to four weeks.
HOW IS CAVIAR GRADED?
Every collection of roe is unique. When the egg from a female sturgeon is harvested, the value and quality are scored by a caviar expert who judges the product according to grading guidelines for roe. Quality is one of the most important factors when it comes to caviar, setting it apart from all other row in the world today. Factors that can change the caviar grade are:
After all these factors are considered, the caviar is typically divided into one of two grades known as Grade 1 caviar and Grade 2 caviar. Grade 1 caviar is also known as A-Grade and is reserved for caviar that satisfies each factor listed above. To be given a Grade 1 score, the eggs must be delicate but consistently firm with large grains that are not broken with fine color, smell, and taste. Caviar that is given a Grade 2 score are usually below average and do not meet the standard of each factor listed above. Grade 2 caviar could have good color and taste but might not be as pleasing to the eye of that compared to grade 1 caviar.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF CAVIAR?
While there are thousands of different fish species swimming the waters of the world, by now, we know that real caviar only comes from the roe of a sturgeon fish, unlike salmon roe. Boasting with flavor, caviar is a unique experience that will take your taste buds to a whole new level of luxury. Many vendors offer salmon, capelin, or trout caviar; however, it is far from the real thing. There are four main types of caviar derived from sturgeon:
Osetra: This caviar has medium-sized eggs that range in color from light gray to dark brown. Osetra caviar has a nutty and slightly salty flavor giving it a richness that tastes of the sea.
Sevruga: This fish produces smaller-sized eggs and is the most popular as it is readily available due to being more abundant than the other types of sturgeon. Sevruga caviar eggs can be anywhere from gray to black in color and has a more intense flavor profile.
Kaluga: Also known as “River Beluga,” this sturgeon produces rows that range in color from a jaded bright bronze to a dark brown. The Kaluga is a giant sturgeon found in the Amur River basin on the border of Russia and China that produces large to very large-sized eggs. Kaluga caviar taste is mild and buttery making each bite one to savor.
Beluga: Caviar from the Beluga has traditionally been considered the most exquisite and expensive caviar on the market today. The eggs are large, providing a creamy and mild taste ranging in color from light gray to black. Unfortunately, this species of fish is critically endangered, and importation of Beluga caviar to the US is illegal. This is the most expensive type of caviar.
Beluga Caviar is found in the Caspian Sea, which runs through Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. Wild caviar in some of these countries has been made illegal, so to produce caviar, aquaculture, or aquatic farming, becomes a staple of caviar production, largely due to the impact of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the international organization that protects species from becoming extinct or endangered..
HOW TO ENJOY CAVIAR
Caviar is such an exquisite and special treat that should be the star on the table when served. It must always be refrigerated and served chilled, kept on a cool dish to maintain a low temperature. Many people will spoon a dollop of caviar and enjoy it as a spread on a cracker while others prefer to simply enjoy it on its own, taking a small spoonful at a time really allowing the flavors to melt on their tongue. Some people like to complement the rich flavor of caviar by pairing it with dill, sour cream, parsley, chopped onion, or lemon. For an authentic Russian experience, try your caviar with blini! Blini is a traditional Russian pancake or crepe that is quite thin made from buckwheat flour. Spread a spoonful of high-quality caviar onto the blini and top with a small dollop of sour cream. Sprinkle chives on top if you like before rolling it into a loose wrap, and enjoy! Although enjoyed in many different ways, if you are new to caviar, we highly recommend trying it on its own before bringing in any additions to truly experience the unique taste of caviar!