Caviar might not be the most obvious snack to add to a sports-watching spread. But with the 2014 Winter Olympics taking place in Russia this month — and with Valentine’s Day falling on the second weekend of the Games — it seems like a golden opportunity to pay homage to one of the country’s most historically celebrated luxuries.
Best enjoyed by the mother-of-pearl spoonful straight from the tin in between sips of champagne, the roe of sturgeon we know as caviar is well-suited to sharing with a sweetheart.
Indulging in the lavish commodity is on the rise, especially with today’s younger set of food-savvy consumers.
“Caviar is a growing category for us,” says Will Whitlow, deli and cheese business development manager for Central Market’s division office. He gets to taste caviar for a living and decide what’s best for area stores. “Customers are asking, ‘What can I do at home that has a sense of luxury?’ Caviar is way up there. It’s so simple. You open it, you don’t have to prepare it, and you have it with a little champagne. It’s so old-school, but now it’s coming into its own.”
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Whitlow says caviar sales spike around Thanksgiving and remain high through New Year’s Eve, but there’s another big bump near Valentine’s Day. (Those aphrodisiac properties are no lie.)
But for those new to the world of caviar, note that the real deal only comes from sturgeon — meaning that a jar labeled salmon roe, lumpfish roe or any other “roe” does not contain true caviar.
“Salmon roe is really popular, and it goes in lots of Asian cooking,” Whitlow says. “But if you’re looking for caviar, roe is a far-off alternative. Salmon roe has a far different texture and flavor profile. It wouldn’t satisfy somebody looking for caviar.”
When purchasing caviar for the first time, deciding which tiny tin to buy can be baffling (as well as expensive). Alexandre Petrossian, the third-generation vice president of the prestigious Petrossian caviar brand, established in Paris in 1920, recommends starting with a lighter-tasting caviar and progressing from there.
“It would be like a cheese,” he says. “If it was the first time that I ate cheese, I wouldn’t go for blue cheese or something very strong.”
Petrossian recommends first buying the smallest tin available of inexpensive caviar, to make sure that you do indeed like caviar. Transmontanus, a white sturgeon native to California, is a good place to start, he says.
“It’s very good caviar that’s not too expensive and not too strong,” he says. “It’s very light in flavor, but has a beautiful flavor. If we had to compare, I would say it would be close to something like an oyster.”
Next on his list for newbies is Shassetra, a pricier Chinese caviar that’s light to dark golden in color and briny in flavor.
“Then I would go for osetra, because it’s definitely the most famous,” Petrossian adds. “If you talk about caviar with your friends, they are going to tell you about osetra first. It’s kind of the middle caviar. It’s not too strong but it’s not the lightest.”
But just like wine, price doesn’t indicate higher quality or better-tasting caviar.
“Your best friend can love one type, and you can love another type. There’s no wrong way, and the price has nothing to do with the flavor,” Petrossian says. “It’s really up to your own taste buds.”
We’re accustomed to seeing caviar presented atop toast points with a dollop of crème fraiche or within hollowed mini potatoes, and not much has changed with regard to these classic, fanciful presentations.
“Simple is best, to let the caviar shine,” says Whitlow. “You’re paying a lot of money for this product. You don’t want it watered down by other condiments.”
As for Petrossian, he admits he’s “a little weird” when it comes to eating the delicacy he grew up with.
“I prefer to have it straight out of the tin with those little wooden Popsicle sticks because when I was a kid, that’s the way we would present caviar to customers,” he says. “If I don’t have that, it’s super hard for me to enjoy it because I’m so used to this flavor.”
Experts recommend taking a spoonful of the delicate fish eggs and moving them around in your mouth, allowing the beads to burst, in order to experience the real, buttery, salty taste of caviar.
“Then you’ll know, ‘OK, I love it or I hate it,’ ” Petrossian says.
Adding complements like traditional mini Russian pancakes, or blini, is optional. As for the Russian tradition of serving caviar with capers, hard-boiled eggs and onions, Petrossian says that’s no longer necessary.
“They used to do that in Russia because, before, the caviar was very, very strong,” he says. “There was a need for something even stronger to cut that salty flavor. Now caviar is salted very lightly. You don’t need to hide the flavor anymore. It has a delicate flavor.”
But whatever you do, don’t eat caviar with a metal spoon.
“Use mother-of-pearl or horn,” says Whitlow. “You wouldn’t use silver or stainless steel. It’s like chewing on aluminum foil. Plastic is also fine as it’s nonreactive.”
Most of today’s caviar is farm-raised, as fishing for wild sturgeon in the famed Caspian Sea, the largest enclosed body of water on earth, is now illegal. Caviar was once reserved for royalty, but in the late 19th century, the salty fish eggs began being sold in American saloons in hopes of making beer-drinking patrons thirstier.
Petrossian is now aiming to make the luxury of caviar more readily available to the masses in the form of less-expensive new products, like an easily spreadable caviar cream, made with crème fraiche and caviar, and a powdered form that comes ready to sprinkle on scrambled eggs or pasta.
“It’s regular caviar that we take and dry, so it’s a lot easier to cook with and easier to play with,” Petrossian says. “It doesn’t have all the difficulties of dealing with fresh caviar. It’s not too expensive and still gives you a taste of caviar.”
Central Market Fort Worth Cooking School director Sarah Hooton provides her favorite recipes for presenting caviar — atop a chive flan or a low-gluten variation of classic blini, crowned with whipped mascarpone and a roasted tomato.
But no matter how you eat it, with champagne or ice-cold vodka, on toasted pumpernickel or with a plastic spoon, indulging in caviar is an experience that’s rarely rushed and always revered.