Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams... its best

Picture a glass of bubbly in one hand...and a neat row of hand-selected caviar laid before me. Unadorned by anything but a delicate spoon carved of horn, the world's finest caviar was delicately scooped in succession.

Side by side, I sampled five caviars...observing the texture as plump beads burst against the roof of my mouth, releasing briney flavors with a hint of the sea. French reserve champagne provided the palate cleanser as we progressed our way to the climax: Iranian Osetra caviar, harvested from the Caspian Sea.

Yeah, I know....It's a rough life.

Did I mention it was 9:00 am?

Before the store opened, I met up with the owner of Seattle Caviar for a tasting. As we sampled our way through their selection, she explained the history of caviar, its impact on the global market, and we discussed how this delicacy is harvested. I was intrigued, and headed off to the library for more research.

Here's what I learned:

The word caviar comes from the Turkish word khavyar, and refers to the salted, unfertilized eggs of Sturgeon. This fish is found only in the Northern Hemisphere and like the alligator, has been able to survive since prehistoric times. Some varieties of sturgeon are giant. Beluga and freshwater Kaluga can live over 100 years and grow up to 16 feet long. Fully mature, they weigh up to a ton. Stories of lore say boats have been sunk as fishermen try to haul these behemoths from the sea.

Despite their size, these toothless, cartilaginous fish are quite docile and are prized not only for the female's eggs, but for the flesh, which has a meaty, delicate texture like veal. The swim bladder is also used to make isinglass, which is used to clarify wine.

Historically, Sturgeon have been found throughout the Northern Hemisphere (England, Italy, France, Egypt, and the Eastern Mediterranean). In most regions, overfishing destroyed any commercial prospects before the 19th century.

Today, two main sources of Sturgeon still exist...the area surrounding the landlocked Caspian Sea in Eastern Europe and in the United States. Let's take a look at the Caspian Sea Region:

Notice the Caspian Sea (Center) is bordered by Russia, Iran and the 'Stans (formerly of the USSR - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan).

Russia's caviar has long been revered and it is closely linked with their national identity. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian caviar has been acquired by black market means only. In fact, in Russia, caviar is so highly prized in the illegal trade market, that caviar is now shipped in armored trucks, often escorted by armed helicopters.

Attention has since turned to Iranian caviar.

In contrast to Russia, the Caspian waters bordering Iran have suffered much less pollution and environmental degradation. Some experts prefer the caviar from this Southern region of the Caspian Sea. This territory has better water quality and a shallow seabed, which offers better spawning grounds.

Iranian Osetra: the crown jewel of caviar

Politics and food come into play...when in 1987, the United States placed an embargo on Iranian imports. This, coupled with the break up and subsequent black market trade in Russia, had a devastating affect on the world caviar supplies.

An outcry...and a more stable political environment...caused politicians to lift the Iranian embargo. Consequently, in 2000, carpets, pistachios, and caviar were once again available in the United States. (The embargo is still in effect for all other Iranian goods.)

American Ikura "caviar"
Though equally delicious, technically, caviar only comes from Sturgeon.
Ikura is salmon roe.

The American caviar market is equally fascinating and a good deal of it comes from the Mississippi River basin.

As the folks over at Seattle Caviar told me, fishermen in this region would snag a Paddlefish, (closely related to Sturgeon) and the eggs would often be discarded. Eventually, the local game department came up with a plan. Instead of throwing the eggs out, fishermen would turn the egg sacks into the Fish & Wildlife Department. The eggs were spawned in an artificial environment to replenish depleted stocks, and the remainder were sold to support a growing caviar industry. That program has become so successful, it's been replicated throughout the Mississippi River basin.

Meet the American Paddlefish, also known as a Spoonbill

Finally, like farm-raised salmon, there is an effort to build an aquaculture industry, farm-raising sturgeon. California's Central Valley boasts an aquaculture farm that's been in existence nearly 20 years, and other farms are now in various stages of development.

A bit o' trivia:

Caviar quality depends on how mature--or immature the eggs are, and whether they are perfectly ripe. Each fish is different and it's up to the caviar master, or ikrjanschik, to determine how best to handle the eggs for optimum flavor.

Caviar eggs have an extensive grading process and are noted by characteristics including: integrity, uniformity, size, firmness, color and shine.

Preservation is key. It determines not only caviar's taste but its economic value and the final destination. Different preservation methods determine how long of a 'shelf life' caviar has...which impacts how far it can travel.

The best caviar treatment is Malossol, or Russian for "lightly salted," which means that it can have no more than 2.8 to 3 percent salt. Lesser-grade caviars are salted more heavily and can contain up to 10 percent salt.

Temperature is critical and caviar should always be stored between 32 and 35 degrees F. In fact, temperature is so critical, purchases at Seattle Caviar are sent home in a thermal bag with ice packs. Once at home, it's recommend you store caviar it in the coldest spot in your refrigerator...and enjoy within 48 hours of breaking the seal.

Silver and caviar don't mix. While the look is elegant, sliver actually reacts with caviar, imparting a metallic taste. A more typical utensil is a small spoon made of gold, wood, horn, or mother-of-pearl. Or you can dine like the Russians...and enjoy your caviar eaten out of hand--specifically, the crook between your thumb and forefinger.

If you're in the Seattle area and you want to enjoy your own caviar tasting, Seattle Caviar is the place. $20 buys you a glass of champagne and a sample of 5 different caviars. For the tastings, no appointments are necessary. If you are dining lavishly, Seattle Caviar is also your stop for foie gras (goose and duck), truffles, and of course, caviar.

Seattle Caviar
2922 Eastlake Ave. East
Seattle, WA 98102
(206) 323-3325