The Ultimate Food
There are three things I always write about in terms beyond the superlative - Paris and Florence, the
two cities I find the most civilized in the world, and caviar, the food I consider the ultimate sign of good taste and sophistication. So saying, let me justify my love of this unique food. During the height of the belle epoque, Hugo, the maitre d’hotel at Maxim’s Restaurant in Paris declared that “the two most sensuous things in the world are Russian caviar and the dashingly beautiful courtesans of Paris". So closely entwined were the two in people's minds that when Grand Duke Sergei of Russia presented his mistress, Augustine de Lierre with a thirty million franc pearl necklace he had it served up on a bed of caviar.
Caviar, the food most clearly identified with wealth, opulence and luxury, has always symbolized the best in life. For the connoisseur, however, caviar is more than an ostentatious display of wealth. It is the ultimate food, with all of the subtleties, complexities and refinement of a great vintage wine or the finest Champagne.
The roe of many fish have been referred to as caviar but that is a mistake, for the only true
caviar comes from sturgeon . Salmon roe, which is commonly known as "red caviar", is quite tasty and the roe from other types of fish, such as trout, carp and lumpfish are edible but, there is no comparison in taste and quality between these and real caviar. Even though sturgeon roe is the only true caviar, it can come from nearly any place in the world. The sturgeon of the Tennessee River basin in the United States and those of the Manchurian part of the Yalu River, for example, yield roe that often rivals the best Russian or Iranian caviar. Although China, the United States, Japan and even Denmark produce some excellent caviar, the best in the world comes from the Caspian Sea where Soviet and Iranian master caviar makers remove the roe from the fish, and then wash, salt and drain it.
The highest grade of Russian caviar is labeled "malossol" which means "little salt", and the salt composition of this caviar is as low as 2 - 3%. More mediocre caviar can contain up to 8% salt. After they have been dried the roe are then sorted and packed according to color, "0000" on a container indicating the lightest and "0" the darkest caviar. Even though the taste is not affected by color, the lighter the caviar, the higher the price it fetches.
There are 27 types of Russian and Iranian sturgeon but the varieties that are most valued are beluga, osetra, and servuga. The beluga, the largest member of the sturgeon family, can reach 800 kilograms in weight, with 15% of its weight made up of roe. This caviar is extremely expensive because the fish do not produce roe until the age of 17. Beluga eggs have a fresh, nutty taste, are firm, separate easily and are uniform in size and color.
The osetra weighs anywhere from 45 - 120 kilos and yields about 8 kilos of roe. Osetra caviar has a stronger, more distinctive flavor than beluga, the eggs are a bit firmer, and they range in color from dark brown to golden. Osetra caviar should cost about 40% less than beluga. The servuga, weighing between 8 and 20 kilos is the most plentiful of the three. Its eggs are the smallest and the caviar is usually a bit more sticky than beluga, but with a comparable taste. Servuga caviar costs 50 - 70% less than beluga. As to actual price in the marketplace, salmon roe offers the best price-quality ratio, a half kilo of red caviar selling for as little as $25. Fine beluga caviar on the other hand currently sells for about $50 for a mere 30 grams.
Animal lovers will be pleased to know that it is no longer necessary to kill sturgeon to remove their roe. Nearly ten years ago Russian biologists perfected a Caesarian type of operation that allows the roe to be removed and for the fish to be returned in healthy condition to the water.
For purists, there are only two correct ways to eat caviar: spooned straight from the container onto thin slices of buttered toast or on blinis, small pancakes made from buckwheat flour. Spoons used to serve caviar should be made of mother-of-pearl or crystal, because silver and other oxidizing metals tend to spoil the taste of the caviar. Only two beverages are appropriate when caviar is eaten this way, either ice cold vodka or well chilled champagne.
Although red caviar is readily available almost everywhere, finding reliable sources for good
Russian or Iranian caviar is not always easy. In London, good supplies can be found at "Fortnum and Mason" (181 Piccadilly, W1A) or at "Hobbs" (29 South Audley Street, W1). In New York City and Paris, the best caviars are to be found at "Petrossian". My own favorite port of call for caviar is at Petrossian where, in addition to being able to stock up, those with time and money to spare may sample 100 grams each of beluga, servuga and osetra caviar, each served in crystal bowls with black bread, finely chopped onion, and Normandy butter. All of this comes on a sterling silver platter with a bottle of fine Brut Champagne. At $250 in New York and 1750 francs in Paris these prices are not outrageous, especially if the snack is shared by four.
New York's Petrossian Restaurant, at 182 West 58th Street, guarantees delivery of this luxurious snack anywhere in the world and they promise that both the caviar and champagne will be well iced upon arrival. The cost depends on where you live. Those living in Tel Aviv, for example, will pay $950 for this treat. If they wish a waiter from Petrossian to accompany their caviar and serve it at their home, the total cost will come to just about $3000. For home delivery call 001: 212 245-2214. Petrossian expects that their clients will be ladies and gentlemen enough to return the crystal and silver.
There are other ways to enjoy caviar. The following recipe, a favorite of Tsar Nicholas II, can be made by using red caviar or any variety of black sturgeon caviar. What one actually uses will be based on taste preference and cost considerations.
Blinis with Caviar
25 grams yeast
1 tsp. sugar
2 cups milk, brought just to the point of
boiling and then cooled to lukewarm
1 cup buckwheat flour, sifted
1 cup white flour, sifted
1 tsp. salt
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 cups clarified butter, melted
4 egg whites, beaten until stiff
1 cup whipped cream
1/4 kilo caviar (salmon roe, beluga, servuga or osetra)
2 cups sour cream
In a small mixing bowl soak the yeast and sugar in 1/4 cup of warm water for 10 minutes. Add 1 cup of the milk.
Sift the buckwheat and white flour together. Resift the flour together with the salt and stir 1 cup of the mixture into the yeast. Cover and let rise for 1/2 hour. Add the remaining milk and flour and the slightly beaten egg yolks. By hand or with an electric mixer beat until the mixture is smooth. Cover and let rise again until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour). Add 3 Tbsp. of the clarified butter and then fold in the beaten egg whites. Fold in the whipped cream, cover again and let this batter rise for 1/2 hour.
To make the blinis, heat a 12 centimeter skillet, add 1 tsp. of the clarified butter and then pour in 1 tablespoon of the batter. Cook for 1 minute, turn the blini to the second side and cook for about 30 seconds. As the blinis are cooked set them aside, keeping warm in a barely warm oven and repeat this process until all of the blinis are done.
To serve, place half the blinis on a heated serving plate. On each blini place 1 teaspoon of caviar. Cover with the remaining pancakes, pour over some of the remaining clarified butter and top with sour cream. (Serves 6 as an hors d'oeuvre).