'Caviar is to dining what a sable coat is to a girl in evening dress.' - Ludwig Bemelmans, writer and illustrator of children's books and an internationally known gourmet
While we're not promoting the fur trade in any way here, we get what Ludwig was saying. There's nothing like caviar. It makes the outfit; it sets the tone; it says one thing - pure luxury.
Why so? Well, as connoisseurs and seafood lovers will know, caviar isn't just riding on its reputation: it's savoured for many reasons. It's been heralded as the snack food of the privileged - from Tsars, to Emperors to English royalty - for millennia. Whether it's down to the silky texture of the round grains, the mildly salty taste of the sea, the buttery, almost nutty aftertaste or the joyful pop of the eggs when gently pressed with the tongue - they just couldn't get enough of it!
Did you know that many people in Russia today eat caviar for breakfast, believing it gives them energy for the day? That’s one wake up call we can get on board with. Legend has it that the name itself, ‘caviar’, comes from the Persian “khav-yar” meaning “cake of power.”
"The cream and hot butter mingled and overflowed separating each glucose bead of caviar from its fellows, capping it in white and gold." – Evelyn Waugh, English writer, traveller and toe-dipper in aristocratic society
So how is it best eaten? To get a pure taste of caviar, it is best sampled on the back of the hand. If you must use cutlery, only spoons made from Mother of Pearl (or plastic if needs must) are the done thing, as metal cutlery will ruin the flavour. You'll be looking for a nice separation of grains and a smooth, buttery taste of the ocean. Egg size differs depending on which kind of caviar it is, and if you appreciate the lovely pop on the palate, the larger the eggs, the greater the pop.
Medieval Russians certainly had their own ideas on how to eat caviar – they either dusted it with flour and fried it (as they also did with roe from burbot, white salmon, pike, carp and grayling), serving it hot with a side of onion, cranberry or saffron sauce, or they cooked it and served it cold, sliced up and flavoured with a mustard sauce or herb vinegar. If it was ever eaten raw, it was seasoned with pepper, chopped onion, vinegar, and oil. It wasn't until the late 19th century that it started being eaten raw as we eat it today, and it became more common to simply indulge in this tasty treat with the pearls piled high, uncooked and unadorned. Toast points became the preferred edible vehicle for transporting caviar from dish to mouth. This new way of eating caviar might well have had something to do with Marie Redelin's advice in Home and Housekeeping in 1897.
We prefer to serve our caviar naturally over ice with several soft blinis, the pillowy softness of which makes them divine combined with the pop of caviar beads, but other traditional ways include piled atop a poached egg, so that the salty eggs contrast with the rich, oozing yolk. It’s also delicious when spooned onto a thin crepe with crème fraîche, and we even recommend enjoying it with mini baked potatoes, steaming hot from the oven with a dollop of sour cream. And and the two beverages we would recommend are ice-cold vodka (served straight or in a martini), or a glass of chilled champagne.
As if it couldn't get any better, it's also really good for you. All the vitamins and minerals that are intended to nourish the unborn fish means it boosts immune functions and has high levels of omega-3s, said to alleviate symptoms of depression (no wonder we feel so great after eating it). In 25g of caviar there are only about 65 calories.
“It’s like being kissed by a lusty mermaid” – Dr. Niles Crane from Frasier, psychiatrist, lover of the finer things in life
Want some more details? Here's a little history...
Caviar was first eaten by fisherman in the Caspian Sea and the Volga as a basic food when they were fishing for the prized sturgeon. It was the fish itself that was held in such high regard, but by the 13th century, its roe caught the attention of the noblemen and aristocrats of the day. Roe of other fish was also eaten, but it was sturgeon roe that was always considered the finest. It became more and more popular amongst the higher echelons of society, and eventually the English Royal Family got wind of it. King Edward II, known for overindulging in sensual pleasures, declared the sturgeon a 'Royal Fish', so that only the royal court could eat it (how naughty!). Caviar became known as 'Black Gold'.
By the late 1800s, Russia was exporting about 828,000 pounds of caviar to an international market, which was mainly Europe. Iran, who also had access to the Caspian Sea, thought they might get in on the action too, and Italy and Germany realised that they could catch sturgeon in the Po and Elbe Rivers. However, the largest caviar producer outside Russia was America. It was an entrepreneurial German immigrant called Henry Schacht who, in 1873, founded the American caviar business with sturgeon from the Delaware River. Caviar became so abundant in the US that saloons were literally giving it away like peanuts – they used it as a salty bar snack to help lubricate the drinking process, in the hope it would increase thirst for whisky and beer! Soon after 1900, though, overfishing and pollution had seriously depleted the American sturgeon population, and Russian caviar began to be imported into the country.
It wasn't long before the sturgeon population in the rest of the world followed suit, and this glorious fish became danger of extinction. Measures had to be taken and international agreements were made to halt catching wild sturgeon and start farming the fish instead. Until only as recently as twenty years ago, nearly 100% of caviar was attained in the wild, and now almost 100% of caviar is farmed (although you will find some on the black market, claiming to be from wild sturgeon stocks).
The introduction of sturgeon farming, however, hasn't made the product less expensive or less of a luxury. It is true that the lengths it takes to catch sturgeon in the wild have been taken out of the equation, but farming is a slow and expensive process. Female sturgeon are cared for and nurtured for no less than seven (and even up to ten) years before they reach egg bearing age, and caviar masters are not easy to find. They are skilled artisans that possess the knowledge of attaining the eggs, and treating and maturing the caviar in precise conditions.
So, now you know all there is to know about caviar, it's time to eat it! Taste the history and love that is in each buttery bead, and know that you are experiencing something very special. When you're looking for something to celebrate with or if you're just feeling a little like a bon viveur on a Monday lunchtime, caviar is the thing to order!
"One can be unhappy before eating caviar, even after, but at least not during." - Irving Kristol, American writer and contemporary thinker