Caviar has long been associated with wealth and nobility, having been consumed by the aristocrats of the Byzantine Greek empire all the way back in the 10th century. Today, fine-dining restaurants and extravagant gatherings feature it in lavish spreads — only furthering its reputation as a luxurious treat.
Many foodies cherish the pearlescent, brown-black orbs for their provenance, rarity, and of course, their potent ocean flavour. In this edition of the Gourmand’s Guide, we unpack what exactly caviar is, what types should be on your radar, where the delicacy comes from, and how it should be consumed.
What is caviar?
The term ‘caviar’ is nothing short of an exclusive one; it refers only to cured sturgeon eggs and is not interchangeable with the roe of any other fish.
The surgeons that produce the finest caviar traditionally hail from the Caspian Sea, which borders Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. However, the sturgeon population has declined by 70 per cent in the last century, leading to a partial ban on fishing sturgeon directly from the Caspian Sea in 2008.
Sturgeon also take up to 25 years to reach maturity and produce eggs, which only exacerbates the species’ vulnerability and rarity. Most companies have turned to breed the prehistoric fish instead, meaning that the majority of caviar today comes from farms.
Caviar types and flavour profiles
The most notable caviar variants include Beluga, Osetra from Russia, and Sevruga from starred sturgeon. Each type yields different egg sizes, colours, textures, and flavour profiles.
The most prized variant is Beluga caviar, which boasts a dark grey colour; a smooth, buttery texture; and a rich, ocean flavour that’s tinged with a hint of nuttiness. The subset of Almas caviar, which comes from albino beluga sturgeon, bears a brilliant yellow hue and a deeper, richer taste. It is thought to be the most expensive variety in the world, with pricing starting from US$25,000 (Rs 18.4 lakh approx) per kilogram.
Coming in second is the olive-toned Osetra variety. It possesses a similar flavour profile and is known for being slightly sweeter than its upmarket cousin. Sevruga caviar remains the most widely harvested and has a savoury flavour profile.
Where is caviar produced and how is it harvested?
Russia, Iran, China, and Italy make up most of the world’s caviar production. China currently produces 60 per cent of all caviar in the world, with Zhejiang-based company Kaluga Queen being responsible for half of that, while the northern Italian region of Brescia is home to the world’s largest caviar farm.
Between Russian and Iranian caviar, the latter tends to be treasured more. Iranian companies (such as Caspian Monarque) stand out for recreating the sturgeon’s natural habitat with water from the Caspian Sea, which in turn, creates more flavourful produce. Russia similarly relies on aquaculture to cope with the species’ shrinking population.
The delicacy was traditionally harvested by culling the sturgeon, slicing it open, and then removing and washing the egg sac. However, there has been an increase in farms acquiring caviar in a ‘no-kill’ manner called ‘milking.’ The process involves trimming the fish’s oviduct and massaging it from head to tail until it naturally pumps the eggs out. It is then returned to the farm waters, effectively ensuring sustainability by regulating the life cycles of the stock.
How to serve and consume?
There are strict rules to savouring this exquisite delicacy. Purists believe it should be eaten off the back of your hand–right in between index finger and thumb–to ensure the clarity of flavour shines through.
Alternatively, serve the caviar raw and chilled, but be sure not to freeze it. Absolutely no metal utensils should be used as it tarnishes the eggs’ natural taste; use spoons made out of mother-of-pearl, bone, or wood instead. Savour happily with a glass of champagne by your side.
Between the lengthy period of time taken to produce caviar and the global demand for the product, it’s no surprise that the delicacy commands eye-watering prices and continues to hold a legendary status across the world.
This story first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Singapore.