Most people I know have never eaten caviar.
Of those who have tried it, the honest response usually is: “Why is it such a big deal? This is rubbish.”
I can empathize with them.
There are three primary reasons why people who try caviar out of curiosity or because of its snob value, find that they absolutely hate its really strong flavor. One: it is not for everyone; many people simply don’t like anything that tastes of the sea. Two: it is an acquired taste even among those who do like it. And three: most of the caviar you are likely to get these days is crap. Well, all right, very, very expensive crap.
Why is it so expensive then?
Well, let’s start with a little marine biology. Most fish reproduce by laying eggs. These are usually called roe. Some roe can be popular (the big, pop-pop spheres of salmon roe for example) and some are not particularly tasty.
But the roe that comes from the sturgeon (a large, almost prehistoric, fish) has always been prized in those regions where the sturgeon swims free. In the areas surrounding the Caspian Sea, where there used to be an abundance of sturgeon, the locals extracted the caviar from the fish, added a little salt and ate it. Sturgeon was less common elsewhere in the world but usually, anyone who had access to sturgeon roe, loved it.
In English, we call sturgeon roe, caviar. The Russians who were the earliest major consumers just call it ‘ikra’, a general term that means fish eggs.
The problem with caviar is that, like most seafood products, it tends to go bad quite quickly without refrigeration. So it was only a century or so ago that the Russians were able to send large quantities of caviar to France, once methods of refrigerated transportation had been developed.
Even then, the caviar did not always keep its freshness, so the ingenious French began serving it with lemon and onion, two strong flavors that made up for any loss in the quality of the caviar. Because it was so expensive they also began serving it with chopped boiled egg whites and other accessories to make each mouthful go further.
The Russians, who had access to fresh caviar, did not bother with the so-called caviar trimmings. They ate it with blinis (buckwheat pancakes) and lots of sour cream. (Usually caviar needs to rest on a bed of fat to bring out the flavor.)
But how good can refrigerated transportation ever be? The trouble with caviar is that if it is not stored at a cool temperature, it spoils. But if the temperature is too cold, then that spoils it too. The grains lose their texture, the membranes deteriorate and the whole thing turns into fish `jam’ as a consequence.
By the time this caviar is eventually served, it smells overly fishy (which good caviar should not). But as most people (with the exception of a few connoisseurs) don’t actually like the stuff anyway, they keep drowning it in lemon, pilling on the onions and pretending that they are having a great gourmet experience.
A more serious problem also occurred that affected the quality of imported caviar we get in United States and it was political in nature.
When the Soviet Union, the world’s largest producer of caviar, collapsed in the Nineties, the stringent laws that governed the harvest of caviar collapsed as well. Rampant overfishing started taking place in the Caspian Sea, endangering the sturgeon species. Bowing to international pressure, Russia banned the export of caviar, and in the other independent republics carved out of Soviet Union, there weren’t enough good quality caviar to go around.
The global demand for the luxury product continued nonetheless, so caviar is still sold at prices that are ridiculously high. There is some good quality caviar that is still out there, but the caviar suppliers only sell it to big, regular buyers like Michelin three-star restaurants. And anything else you might find outside these establishments is likely to be of disappointingly poor quality.
Is there a way out for caviar connoisseurs then?
Well, yes, sort of.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, many people set up their own sturgeon hatcheries all around the world and tried to farm the fish. Though it takes years for the sturgeon to get to the age where it lays eggs (caviar), they have waited patiently.
And now, you can get farmed caviar from a variety of countries. The best known is Aquitaine caviar from France, which such chefs as Alain Ducasse prefer to serve rather than the unreliable supplies of Caspian caviar. And then there is farmed caviar from America, Uruguay and Belgium.
How good is farmed caviar?
Well, most of it is surprising good. They don’t come close to the wild Caspian caviar, of course, but then, you are about as likely to get a can of great Caspian caviar these days as you are to see a unicorn.
Farmed caviar is not cheap either. Yes, it is cheaper than the fantastic prices that the likes of Caviar House or Petrossian charge for wild caviar. But, compared to the old days when wild caviar was just expensive and not ridiculously overpriced, the price of farmed caviar is high.
So, should you still buy caviar?
Yes, if a) you are feeling rich, b) you have something to celebrate and c) you know a good supplier. Otherwise, save your money and choose farmed caviar instead. They won’t be of Caspian Sea caliber, but at least you won’t get conned. And hopefully, your party guests will not wonder why you’re serving fish jam and calling it caviar.