The Brave New World of Caviar

The Brave New World of Caviar David Rosengarten


Had you been a caviar lover in 2000, and, fully sated, had you gone down for a Rip Van Winkle slumber…and had you awakened today, preferably to the pop of a Champagne cork…you simply would not recognize the world of caviar around you. In 2012 (and, next week, in 2013!)  we are in the full throes of an historic caviar revolution. Things, for better or worse, will never, ever be the same again when it comes to those yummy little sturgeon eggs.

Get used to it!

Way back when…when the phrase “New World Order” merely referred to forms of government and strategic alliances…”caviar” meant one thing only to caviar-lovers: the roe of sturgeon, three species exclusively, caught wild in the Caspian Sea (which is bordered, most famously, by Russia and Iran). Around the globe, if it wasn’t Caspian Beluga, or Caspian Osetra, or Caspian Sevruga, it wasn’t considered worthy of one’s time or money. It wasn’t even considered caviar.

Still, today, “caviar” does mean sturgeon eggs…

Caviar in the foreground (sturgeon roe), salmon roe in the background (not considered caviar)

…but in the New World Order of caviar, caviar-lovers are clamoring for other sturgeon species (there are 24 altogether), from other geographic regions—an unthinkable prospect as little as ten years ago. Today, serving Transmontanus sturgeon roe from California, or Baeri sturgeon roe from Bordeaux, at your holiday party, has, for most caviar mavens, attained a near-Caspian-level cachet.

Egg by egg, here is the situation facing you today:

  • There is virtually no Caspian Sea caviar in the U.S. Petrossian, based in Paris, and arguably the world’s greatest caviar merchant, reports that there is no Caspian caviar at all from reputable distributors available in the U.S. Petrossian itself, for the third year in a row, is selling none. There are many factors involved—but part of the problem is that our government, in 2010, banned the import of all products from Iran.
  • Another problem is caviar shortages in Russia. For the first time ever, in 2011…Petrossian sold American caviar to Russia!
  • If you’re thinking you get a bye because you’re traveling to Europe for New Year’s Eve…you probably won’t be able to find reputable product there, either! The EU has banned the sale of Caspian Sea caviar in all EU countries.
  • For those who live and die by caviar made from the Big Three of the Caspian—Beluga sturgeon, Osetra sturgeon and Sevruga sturgeon—you must be happy to know that Osetra has shown itself to be very adaptable to farming, and sturgeon-farmers around the world are making a new industry of farm-raised Osetra caviar. Much of it is very good!
  • Farm-raised Beluga has proven infinitely trickier. But there is some movement this year. Some farms in Bulgaria have had success with raising Beluga. Unfortunately, the U.S. has imposed a ban on any form of imported Beluga (fearing for the continuation of the species)—so regulations will have to change before Belugaphiles in the U.S. can get their caviar spoons on’t.
  • Of course, the best news continues to be the success that farmers around the world are having with sturgeon species beyond the Big Caspian Three. The international hit of the moment, to be sure, is Transmontanus, a species native to the west coast of the U.S., being raised in abundant quantities by Sterling in the Sacramento River Delta. Also known as “White” sturgeon, Transmontanus sturgeon produce caviar that is sometimes very close to Osetra in flavor, texture and quality. I love it.
  • However, the greatest caviar I’ve tasted in 2011 and 2012 comes from a different sturgeon entirely…the Shrencki, a native of…China!!!

Schrenki is just starting to swim into the consciousness of the global caviar-lover. Yes, we caviarheads starting hearing about the Chinese Kaluga caviar twenty years ago, and we thought that was it for China, caviar-wise (the inherent rhyme in Kaluga made it easy to remember?) But the species Acipenseriformes in the Amur River Basin has, actually, two sub-categories: Kaluga AND Schrencki. Every time I’ve tasted them together in the last two years…I’ve liked the Kaluga…and LOVED the Schrenki…which has a rich, sticky, eggy depth in its often green-yellow eggs (again, not unlike Osetra). You can find Schrencki from numerous purveyors right now, and I haven’t tasted them all…but I can personally recommend the wonderful, Caspian-like Chinese Schrencki from Petrossian. Intriguingly, at Petrossian they have created a new marketing name for Schrencki; last year they called it “Schrencki,” but this year they have shifted to “Shassetra.” Ah well…roes by any other name would smell as sweet!

Lastly, there is one thing concerning caviar that will NEVER change (at least in my mind, and my kitchen): if you have great caviar, DO NOT muck it up with other things! DO NOT serve eggs, onion, toast, sour cream…all those distractions intended to cover the taste of bad and cheap caviar! The only thing that goes with great caviar…is MORE great caviar! Caviar should be a sticky, sexy mass…

Great-looking caviar 

…not a poppy group of firm, hard eggs (which usually  indicates the dreaded pasteurization).

Cheap-looking caviar

If you have poppy eggs from the supermarket, you can put Sriracha on them for all I care. But if you have the real thing (for which you’ve paid a king’s ransom)…you want to eat this sensuous, velvety stuff with a spoon, slowly, crushing the eggs gently with your tongue against all the pockets of your palate. This act of masticatory dedication brings caviar to its sexy best!

And one postscript, to cleanse the traces of caviar oil off your lips: drinks! Now I’m not a knee-jerk Champagne-with-caviar guy…largely because the fruit of young, less-than-brilliant Champagne can cloy with caviar. But when you can find a brilliant aged Champagne, with all the wonder of aged, toasty flavors…AND good, crisp acidity…AND dryness…you are in the Champagne-with-caviar zone! NOTHING is better with caviar than the right Champagne! I’ve been scouring the U.S. market for years for just the right stuff. It isn’t easy to find, and when you do…it is usually obscenely expensive!

And that is one of the reasons why I’m importing my own Champagne right now!

As of this month, I have three in the country, from the historic house of Michel Gonet (founded in Epernay in 1820).

But, without doubt, the caviar-slayer is the oldest of the three, the 2002 Michel Gonet, Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs.

If you have never really “gotten” Champagne and caviar (I’ve been there many times in that gastronomic purgatory)…please get yourself some caviar and a bottle of this bubbly extraordinaire! It’s a simple as clicking here for more info!


Photos Via: BigStockPhoto,

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