Food & Wine
The Fish That Laid the Golden Eggs
Sturgeon: A gourmet's best friend
Aug. 31, 2005 09:00 AM
Few delicacies make as perfect a match for a vacation at sea as caviar. Long associated with elite connoisseurs, caviar has, in the words of James Beard, “been present at more important international affairs than have all the Russian dignitaries of history combined.”
Caviar is to a yacht vacation as a Lalique glass “Spirit of Ecstasy” hood emblem is to a black Rolls-Royce: you can proceed without it, but why on earth would you want to? Any number of littoral locales, from Beaulieu-sur-Mer on the French Riviera to the White Sulfur Hot Springs on the Alaska coast, make a sublime backdrop for the sensual ritual of consuming caviar.
Raising a silver-tip-handled, mother-of-pearl spoon, you inhale the bouquet of the caviar and, pleased to find it has just the very lightest suggestion of a sea perfume, you let the orbs glide onto your tongue. Inhaling but a whisper of air, you press the eggs against your hard palate, reveling in the subtle marine foretaste which is followed by a truffle-tinged nutty-fruitiness and finally a marked oceanic flavor overlain with hints of the edible gold leaf used in Indian cuisine. You savor the delights of the cumulative taste sensations lingeringly, as if they were a Caribbean sunset.
We know that many different fishes provide roe which, when of high quality and used in a fine recipe, are worthy of our taste buds. Yet we also know that only three members of the sturgeon family produce what may legitimately be called caviar: sevruga, osetra and beluga. True, the cultivation of increasingly sophisticated aquaculture techniques in such places as California and the Aquitaine region of France have of late been producing sturgeon caviars which earn seals of approval from cognoscenti; nonetheless, for a variety of reasons, Iranian caviar from the Caspian Sea is currently superior to others.
The word caviar evolved from the Persian “Khag-avar,” which means “the roe-generator.” In Medieval Russia, caviar was known as a peasant’s food, but by the time Shakespeare wrote the famous line from Hamlet which explains that a certain play was too refined to be enjoyed by the general public, “twas caviary to the general,” caviar had gained its association with connoisseurship and luxury. In 1971, when the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, mounted a celebration of 2,500 years of the Persian Empire, an actual ton of caviar was provided, and of course eaten by the guests.
When partaking of this delicacy, forgetting the painstaking efforts requisite to its production can be easy. All equipment to come in contact with the fish and the caviar is first sterilized. The sturgeon are caught in nets and transported live to the fishery where they must be washed several times and then anaesthetized in advance of having their egg sacs removed. Were a sturgeon to be killed first, she would release a bitter tasting chemical into her roe. Once the roe sacs have been removed, they are delicately lashed open with birch switches. The caviar master must evaluate the grade of the eggs in order to select the correct mesh screen over which to gently pass them with his hand. This step separates binding tissue from the eggs. Each harvest of sevruga, osetra and beluga that is, literally, worth its salt receives a grade of 1 or 2; criteria for the grading include the uniformity of the eggs as regards size, color, egg separation, fragrance, pellucidness and hardness of the shells. After the eggs have been separated into a tub, the absolutely correct, discreet amount of dry salt is added to them and oh so carefully but thoroughly mixed in; a lesser quantity of salt is desirable though it renders the product more perishable. The eggs are then placed on a fine mesh screen for drainage. Packaging the caviar in containers requires utmost fastidious delicacy; once the eggs have been carefully put inside, the lid must be manually pushed down so that the air inside is forced out as the container is sealed. Writing in her book Caviar, Susan Friedland said: “There are caviar lovers who swear they can tell the identity of the [caviar] master by rolling a bit of caviar around their tongue.”
Author Forrest Webb gave his 1975 nautical mystery novel the alluring title of Caviar Cruise. Who among us would not like to simultaneously indulge our passions for yachting and caviar? Russia’s Orthodox Cruise Company offers a caviar cruise starting at Rostov-on-Don, progressing to Volgograd and thence down the Volga to the Caspian Sea. Meals always feature at least one dish incorporating Russian caviar; menus intriguingly include items such as sturgeon soup and recipes using milt, the sperm of the male sturgeon, traditional in Russian cuisine and quite popular in France where it is known as laitance.
The surest bet for being able to receive premium Iranian caviar during a yacht vacation is to take your vacation in the Mediterranean; the relative proximity of the area to the Caspian as well as the Europeans’ savoir-faire in obtaining it are most propitious. With that said, premium caviar can be flown to any marina in the world, though one does have to be cognizant of the necessary advance planning. The high end of the caviar trade is very strictly regulated in order to protect the sturgeon as a species. Much documentation is required by law when Iranian sevruga, osetra and beluga are sent from one country to another.
No Limits Yachts in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, is experienced at flying Iranian caviar into its marinas for an initial provisioning. They have their own helicopter, small airplane and fast boat to replenish your caviar supply during a charter. Well connected in the Caribbean food world, they can also arrange for a guest chef from a leading restaurant to prepare a caviar-themed meal during your vacation. They even would be able to assemble a caviar picnic and then fly you and your company to an uninhabited island for the memorable adventure of consuming it.
Tim Nelson of Seven Seas Yacht Charters in Nokonis, Florida, is a seasoned professional who not only can guide you to the ideal boat for your charter vacation but who also has a special familiarity with the crème-de-la-crème of sea-faring chefs; he can arrange for a world-class caviar expert to work magic in your galley. Andrew Buys of the Barrington-Hall Corporation, an international yacht charter company in Ft. Lauderdale, advises that should you wish to take a caviar cruise with caviar featured in at least one dish of each meal, your best bet would be to have a principal chef assisted by a caviar expert.
For the ultimate elite caviar experience, you must try Almas caviar. Almas is the Russian word for diamonds; this white caviar with a heavenly flavor and a buttery texture is culled from Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon over 100 years old. Generally, the older the fish and the lighter the color of its roe, the more exquisite the caviar. Excellence combined with rarity has its price; Caviar House in London sells a kilo of Almas caviar in a 24-karat gold tin for £16,000, or about $25,000. For more modest tastings, a £800 tin is available.
While purists will tell you that premium caviar should always be enjoyed by itself, it would seem a tragedy to forgo such pleasures as sliced lobster tail and caviar on croutons, sea bass with a caviar sauce, or scallops in a cream sauce prepared with both sevruga and beluga caviars. Like wine, caviar has a rich and inexhaustible culture; it is an interest to be cultivated over a lifetime. Beyond the actual caviar are all the fine points of caviar accouterments: the présentoirs, the golden serving shovels, and the mother-of-pearl serving plates. Ideally, one should be able to, if not identify the caviar master from one taste of his product, then at least to recognize the difference between sevruga, osetra and beluga when blindfolded. At present, 50% of premium caviars are sold to airlines to be served to their first-class passengers. I hope this article serves as a stimulus for increasing the quantity of premium caviar consumed aboard yachts.