United States Fish and Wildlife Service banned the importing of Beluga caviar from the Black Sea basin. This ban, along with a ban in September 2005 of Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea, effectively cuts off the supply of Beluga caviar to the United States. Then, in January 2006, the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) temporarily banned the international trade of beluga caviar. These decisions were reached in an attempt to help conserve the dwindling population of Beluga sturgeon, an endangered species. In this article, we examine some of the different kinds of caviar and examine some of the issues surrounding this luxury food.
Caviar is the prepared (usually by lightly salting) roe of the sturgeon family (Acipenseridae) of fish. There are less than thirty species of sturgeon - any of whose roe can be considered to be caviar. (Caviar from other fish are available, but are always preceded by the name of the fish from which the roe was collected.) The roe of the sturgeon is typically collected by catching the sturgeon with nets, clubbing the fish to stun it, and cutting the belly open to scoop out the eggs. A few rare operations will carefully extract the eggs while leaving the ovaries intact and the fish in a state which it can recover from (but these are generally not found around the Caspian Sea region). The eggs are then washed, strained, salted, and packed into vacuum sealed tins for transport and sale.
Of all the species of sturgeon, three are most famous: Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga. All three of these species live in the Caspian Sea and are generally fished by Russian or Iranian fisheries.
Beluga caviar is harvested from the beluga sturgeon (Huso huso) and has nothing to do with the Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas), an arctic marine mammal (also known as the white whale or beluga whale). The Beluga sturgeon is currently the most sought after (and most expensive) of all caviars. The beluga sturgeon is large (up to 30 feet [9 m] in length and over a ton [900 kg]) and long-lived (up to 100 years). Unfortunately, their long life span and late maturing make them especially susceptible to the effects of pollution. Beluga caviar is composed of large (pea-sized), gray eggs. In general, the lighter the color, the more expensive. The grades are: 0 (darkest color), 00 (medium toned), and 000 (lightest color). The 000 grade is the most expensive and is sometimes referred to as "royal caviar". The texture of the caviar is often described as rich and silky.
Osetra caviar (sometimes spelled ossetra or asetra) is harvested from the Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii) and sometimes the Persian sturgeon (Acipenser persicus). Osetra caviar is also highly prized and fairly rare. The eggs are smaller than the beluga caviar and the color can range from brownish gray to golden. The taste is generally described as nutty and strong.
Sevruga caviar is harvested from starry or stellate sturgeon (Acipenser stellatus). These eggs are small and dark gray in color. This is the most common (and least expensive) caviar from the Caspian Sea and Black Sea region.
Because of over fishing, the destruction of spawning sites, and pollution, supplies of these three caviars have begun to dwindle and prices have sky rocketed. With the recent bans, beluga caviar may no longer be available at all. To fill this void, several "new" caviars have been introduced:Farm raised Siberian sturgeon (Acipenser baerii), white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus), and American hackleback sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorhynchus, usually called shovelnose sturgeon). The roe of black paddlefish (Polyodon spathula), although not a sturgeon, is also becoming more available.
Of these, the Siberian caviars, the quality and taste generally approach that of Osetra caviar - and these caviars are commonly, misleadingly, labeled as osetra. White sturgeon can also approach the quality of osetra, but is sometimes tainted with a muddy flavor. The American hackleback caviar is generally not has highly regarded but is may be an excellent roe for use in cooking due to its much lower cost.
Often caviar is sold with the additional label of "malossol". This labeling is from the Russian meaning "little salt". It is generally used to identify the caviar as minimally processed and using a minimum amount of salt. Unless you're comparing two tins from the same producer, the term "malossol" is more marketing gimmick than useful labeling.
As mentioned earlier, not all osetra caviar is osetra caviar. In addition, caviar labeled as Russian probably isn't (at least outside of Russian). Russia has not had international approval to export for the last couple years. Most likely, the caviar is old, black market, or from Azerbaijan.
Although the white sturgeon is indigenous to California and the Pacific Northwest, caviar labeled "American sturgeon" may contain white sturgeon, American hackleback, or paddlefish roe. What's the easiest way to tell? If it's relatively inexpensive, it's probably not white sturgeon.
High quality caviar is often consumed as is to experience the full flavor and texture of the roe. Caviar service is performed with a plastic (which may be the perfect utensil, but probably seems cheap and ruins the atmosphere considering how much the caviar cost), wood, mother-of-pearl, or even gold utensils. The use stainless steel or silver will taint the flavor. Caviar is also used to top unsalted crackers or toast, on salads, or even as a stuffing. Some caviar is also used as a stuffing in various cooked dishes, but this is probably not the best use of your money.
Caviar should be consumed on the same day that the tin is opened. Whenever possible the caviar should be kept cold over crushed ice. If the caviar cannot be consumed in the first day, flatten the caviar in the tin and cover with a sheet of plastic wrap. Gently press the plastic wrap down over the caviar to remove air pockets and store in the refrigerator surrounded by crushed ice.
Unopened containers of fresh caviar should also be stored in the refrigerator with crushed ice. Stored in this manner, the caviar should last two to three weeks. Unopened pasteurized caviar tins typically hold for six months on the shelf.
Freezing caviar should be avoided because it may alter the taste and texture of the roe. If caviar has been frozen, slowly (very slowly) return it to a thawed state by keeping it in the refrigerator over ice for a day or two.