There are some images that are hard to sweep from your mind. You know the sort of stuff – hypocritical politicos caught by CCTV in a ‘steamy clinch’. Etched in my cranium is that ogre of monstrous appetites, Robert Maxwell, in his eyrie at the old Daily Mirror HQ in Holborn opening a desk drawer during a meeting and scooping a hairy fistful of caviar into his maw.
That might put anyone off this ultra-expensive delicacy for life. On the hack’s salary he was paying me I was never going to develop the habit. But when the opportunity comes along to reacquaint oneself with the unique experience of high end sturgeon roe it’s hard to say ‘whoa there’.
I barely know my Beluga from my Ossetra but I know what I like. In truth my palate isn’t attuned to the nuances that separate the trio of caviars sent to me by iconic brand Petrossian but I’m getting there. The three 50g tins before me range in price from £100 for the Alverta® Royal Caviar through £120 for the Alverta® Tsar Impérial™ Caviar to £130 for the Ossetra Tsar Impérial™
Before I even dare broach them I have to do some research, which I can share with you as fellow caviar virgins. If you are already an aficionado (not just a show-off glutton like the aforementioned Cap’n Bob) look away now.
Ossetra, also called Oscietra or ‘Russian sturgeon’, hails from the shores of the Caspian Sea bordering Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. It’s in those dark waters, muddied by the interminable internecine conflicts of the region, that we should start.
The star of the show is the bottom-feeding sturgeon – scientific name Acipenser Gueldenstaedti – which was around way before the dinosaurs and hasn’t had much of a makeover since. Traditionally it was an absolute lottery for sturgeon to produce offspring. Even the smallest of them are over six years old when they first spawn. Beluga and Kaluga, the larger varieties, only reach maturity in their twenties.
Sturgeon were also picky about where to lay their eggs – inevitably in tthe same area where they themselves were hatched. It was all quite an endurance test. En route they lived off their own fat, swimming upriver against the tide, until they found a rocky stretch to find a mate and spawn. Yet unlike salmon they don’t perish at the end of the process, which has kept them from extinction.
Overfishing and poaching definitely pushed the sturgeon toward the brink, though until it became illegal to fish for this species in that region. After years of studies and research, Petrossian was the first player on the market to offer farmed Ossetra in 2007.
I must admit it was my favourite of the trio, whether on its own or with blinis (our own fresh buckwheat treats, not the bought-in disappointments), soured cream and slices of Petrossian’s Coupe du Tsar® 80 day smoked salmon tenderloin.
The dark amber-hued Ossetra was briny and sensual with a persistent aftertaste, for me pipping its creamier, iodised rival, the almost black Alverta® Tsar Impérial™. The other Alverta was less distinctive. Both the product of the Acipenser transmontanus white sturgeon, which can top four metres long in its natural habitat of North American rivers. Nowadays the fish is farmed for it eggs in California and Italy.
They sure love it in the ‘Golden State’ where the great chef patron of The French Laundry, Thomas Keller has just launched a new pop-up bar pairing – what else? – caviar and Champagne in the Napa Valley wine town of Yountville.
Fresh out of Krug, I opened sharing bottles of beer with photographer compadre Joby Catto. He brought along ‘Spirit of Nature’, a mixed fermentation yuzu fruited sour and
The Wild Beer Co’s Ninkasi Saison. The latter, containing 10 per cent apple juice, fruity hops and wild yeast, made an excellent fist of counterfeiting the appropriate Champagne.
No bias here but the best match came from my Elderflower and Gooseberry Sour 2020. Tart and funky, it made a perfect marriage of convenience with the briny caviar.
Is it all worth it?
A pre-pandemic survey of the UK’s two and three Michelin starred restaurants discovered that over 70 per cent featured caviar on its menus. This is all the milder, farmed stuff, more sustainable than the wild product from the Caspian and Black Seas, international trade in which has been banned since 2006. That had to be done since harmful fishing practices put native sturgeon on the endangered list.
Still there are some issues in harvesting the roe (ie eggs) from sturgeon in the farms. These are discussed in a balanced way in this 2019 Guardian article.
Without the farms, caviar, an iconic luxury item, would not now exist. A new generation of chefs are seeking alternative roes but as with Champagne versus other bubbles the cachet is not the same.
From the watershed moment when it was transformed from peasant fodder – a meat substitute during fasts – into a coveted status symbol of the Tsars and ultimately the affluent across the globe there has been no turning back for caviar.
As I nibble the final glistening ‘black gold’ off a silver spoon I relish an oligarchal sense of conspicuous consumption, but ultimately I prefer the salmon on my blini.
To buy Petrossian caviar, smoked salmon and other top of the range products visit this link.
Many thanks to Joby Catto for the beer and some excellent images.