What do you actually know about caviar?
Nicholas Narsavidze is a partner at AmStur Caviar, a family owned business that started in Georgia, relocated to California, and in 2015 opened its first international distribution facility in the UAE. Below, he outlines everything you need to know about the luxury sturgeon eggs that people aspire to eat but mostly don’t understand.
Caviar is an excellent appetizer, condiment, or even a simple course on its own. Growing up in Georgia in the late 1980s caviar was extremely affordable. It was a common table garnish and a breakfast essential that perfectly complimented an invigorating cup of breakfast tea. I remember piling it atop thinly sliced and lightly buttered pieces of rye bread until either the bread or the caviar disappeared. These days it is seen as being a much more exclusive product, but one that few people truly understand. So here’s a guide to this wonderful product.
Let’s first clear up a few common misconceptions about caviar: firstly that it mainly comes from Russia or the Caspian Sea, and secondly that one must be a connoisseur to either try it or appreciate it. To the first point, there are actually 25 species of sturgeon that still remain worldwide. Each species has a native-habitat where it has evolved over time.
In fact, North America has the greatest diversity of sturgeon in the world, with seven different species. In the Caspian Sea and in the Black Sea there is between four to six species. Ultimately, the best tasting caviar comes from fish raised in their native waters. It’s important to understand that the sourcing of caviar is one of the most important factors when it comes to taste. Sturgeon must be raised in their native waters, as even the smallest change to their living conditions can have dramatic repercussions on the flavour, taste and quality of the caviar.
The word “caviar” itself can also cause confusion. Caviar can only be produced from the unfertilised eggs (“roe”) of sturgeon and no other fish. For example, there technically is no such thing as “red caviar” – that would simply be “salmon roe.” Sturgeon produce roe every two to four years once they reach maturity (at about 8 to 10 years old). Caviar is produced only after sturgeon roe has been cured in salt for at least 60 to 90 days. Then, and only then, can it be called “caviar.”
So when purchasing caviar always be inquisitive. Don’t be afraid to ask where it was sourced or produced.
It is further important to know that, as of 1998, wild-caught caviar is completely illegal and all caviar trade worldwide is primarily from aquafarms. So, you may be surprised to know that China produces the greatest amount of caviar in the world. It is produced from sturgeon that they imported and many times cross-bred. Italy is the second largest producer followed by Russia, France, and the United States.
Good quality caviar should never taste muddy, overly fishy, or metallic. I think many people who have tasted caviar before have had a bad experience and therefore conclude that they must be connoisseurs in order to appreciate it. I believe this couldn't be further from the truth; anyone can enjoy caviar because good caviar is very pleasant and tasty. It has a smooth buttery flavour with top notes of fruits and/or nuts. I sincerely invite anyone to try, and if the surgeon was raised properly then you will not be disappointed.
With this in mind, here are my top tips for how best to experience caviar:
1. Always keep caviar at temperatures between -2 C and 2 C.
2. Avoid excess exposure to air. Caviar becomes more intricate and complex during its aging process (between three and five months) and if exposed to air over long periods of time it can spoil the flavour.
3. Enjoy caviar directly. The concept of eating caviar off of blini’s smothered with fixings was created to mask any undesirable flavours.
4. Pair your caviar with a drink of your choice. One of my favourite pairings is pure alpine water as it cleans the palate while still permitting you to savour each flavour.
5. Only purchase all-natural, fresh, caviar. Stay away from pasteurised caviar, or caviar that contains preservatives such as e284 (boric acid), e285 (borax or sodium tetraborate) – these greatly influence the taste of the caviar and also your health. Fresh, all-natural, caviar only has a shelf-life of two months whereas caviar containing preservatives can have a shelf-life sometimes greater than six months.
6. Try a variety of grades to see which you prefer the most, as no two sturgeon are alike and interestingly no two harvests are alike. Therefore you will never find two tins of caviar that taste exactly the same. Let your own taste buds decide.
7. The most expensive does not mean the best quality or taste. This is very common with the Beluga (Huso Huso) as well as the Osetra (Acipenser Gueldenstadtii) species. Huso Huso is truly an amazing animal and it takes the longest time to reach maturity. It is also the rarest as the species is nearly extinct. However, this does not in any way guarantee the quality of the caviar to be good or delicious. That depends greatly on the way the fish was raised, on the availability of fresh water at this farm, the quality of the feed, the time of the harvest, and the way the caviar was cured. Unfortunately, many farms around the world grade caviar based solely on firmness or colour and we feel that this is incorrect. We believe that taste is the most important property.
8. At AmStur, we have been able to identify four most common flavour and firmness profiles that enable you to pick just the right caviar for your dish or meal. Royal grade caviar, for example, has the most buttery and rich flavour that I highly recommend eating alone or straight. It is truly a culinary masterpiece that makes my mouth water just thinking about it. Ultimately it depends on what you are preparing and what you are in the mood for.
AmStur delivers the world’s finest caviar directly to the chef or individual consumer. The company and its caviar chauffeur service caters means customers can benefit from AmStur’s expert advice. To find out more, visit: amstur.com