DINING OUT Caviar for the General

Most of the resistance to caviar is pure prejudice.

Caviar falls between okra and octopus on the list of most people’s favorite snack foods. Always regarded as a puzzling affectation of the upper class, caviar’s reputation has been further maligned by the prevalence of briny, inferior types at bad parties.

But a lot of the popular notions about caviar are pure myth. The first myth has to do with cost. The most prized caviar generally available costs about $18 an ounce. People pay much more than that for perfume, which doesn’t have nearly the nutritional value. The second myth has to do with what caviar is. Caviar isn’t just fish eggs, but fish roe, preserved with a little salt. Even though “roe” means the same thing as “eggs,” the psychological distinction is crucial. After all, “pork” means the same thing as “pig meat.”

Another reason for the widespread prejudice against caviar may be the zeal of the United States Food and Drug Administration. In order to meet the FDA’s standards, caviar destined for the American market is more heavily salted than that made for Europe. (In a related development, the Feds once tried to prevent the importers of Russian vodka from calling that product vodka. “Authentic” vodka, according to our government standards, is flavorless; the Russian product isn’t.)

To help dispel this prejudice, we persuaded Suzy Rothstein of Marty’s to bring a sampling of her wares to an intimate gathering of neighbors and co-workers. The tasters, lured by the promise of free vodka, ranged from novice to experienced. The caviar was served on crisp, toasted canape bases, and we tried each variety with and without a selection of condiments – fresh lemon juice, chopped scallions, chopped egg, and sour cream.

We began with three types of Caspian Sea sturgeon caviar, the most expensive, imported from Iran. Good sturgeon caviar is slightly fishy and salty, but subtleties of flavor and texture win out: The closest comparison I can think of is to sea air. Beluga is the largest-grained, with grayish-black eggs about one-sixteenth of an inch in diameter. Osetra and sevruga are progressively smaller, but the difference is slight. Beluga is the rarest and costliest, osetra the mildest, and sevruga the most popular, being standard fare on some cruise ships.

All but one of the tasters preferred the sevruga. Its eggs were the most attractive – marbled, light in color, sparkling. Its texture was the most interesting, too: The tiny eggs burst open in the mouth with an effect not unlike that of Pop Rocks. Our tasters described the sevruga as tangy, robust, fun, assertive.

One taster preferred the beluga. She found it less fishy and salty than the sev-ruga, and she liked the way the larger grain allowed her to distinguish individual eggs in her mouth. None of our tasters preferred the osetra. It was the darkest of the three, with charcoal-gray eggs, bland, and a bit mushy.

As an added treat, we were offered a preview of caviar from a domestic sturgeon now being developed near our own Pacific Northwest. This caviar is about half the cost of its Caspian relatives, but, our tasting indicated, it’s no bargain. The eggs were minuscule, blending into something that looked like prune puree. The flavor was reminiscent of Caspian caviar, but without punch.

The big hit of the evening was a very fine example of domestic salmon caviar, much less expensive than sturgeon, but no less a delicacy. The eggs were pink-orange and about three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter. (As one of our tasters said, “They look like vitamin E pills.”) The flavor was fresh and delicate. The large eggs retained their chill well, and when they ruptured in the mouth, the effect was akin to being splashed with sea spray. Thoroughly delightful.

Our source for all of the above offerings was Caviar Inc., whose European cousin, Pana Caviar, currently has a corner on the best Iranian grades. Our sample of Icelandic lumpfish caviar was by Romanoff, for decades the dominant caviar distributor in this country. We had both the red- and black-dyed lumpfish caviars, which were otherwir.e identical. The tiny grains were nicely separate, not mushy at all (they tended to roll off our canape bases like loose BBs), and they crunched pleasantly in the mouth. But the flavor was unpleasantly acrid, extremely salty. Later, I picked up some Romanoff salmon and whitefish caviars. The whitefish was similar to the lumpfish, though perhaps a bit milder. The salmon was much saltier and less interesting in texture than that offered by Caviar Inc., and it was artificially colored.

How best to enjoy caviar? The consensus of our tasters was that Caspian sturgeon caviar is best served without condiments, except for a bit of lemon juice to cut the slight fishy-salty taste. It could be eaten with a spoon or heaped on canape bases. I’d recommend lightly toasted crustless bread over commercial canape bases, which can be too crunchy to allow the texture of the caviar to come through. You might take a cue from the Queen Elizabeth 2, which served about five and a half tons of Iranian caviar last year. The ship serves beluga as a dinner appetizer with chopped egg, minced sweet onion, and toast points on the side; the more assertive sevruga is reserved for garnishes. Or you might consider the example of the North Texas woman who eats caviar for breakfast by the spoonful. It has more protein than Rice Krispies.

The salmon caviar was complemented nicely by a drop or two of lemon juice and just a bit of chopped scallion. The lumpfish caviar, on the other hand, needed all the help it could get. It would be most useful as a light garnish for other foods: In small quantities (and heavily camouflaged) its saltiness is inoffensive, and it asserts a distinctive flavor. A four-ounce jar will go a very long way, though. If you’re not planning about a hundred canapes, expect some waste.

The price? Expect to pay from $1.90for three and a half ounces of Romanoffwhitefish caviar to more than $60 for thesame amount of Caviar Inc. belugamalossol. (The word malossol, by theway, just signifies that the caviar waspreserved with a minimum of salt. It’sRussian for “little salt.”) The best valuewould appear to be the Caviar Inc.salmon malossol, at $26.99 a pound. Asfor the Iranian sturgeon caviar, if moneyis no object it’s a worthy addition to adinner or hors d’oeuvre table.

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