Crazy for Caviar
BY PAMELA ROBIN BRANDT,
traditional to eat certain foods at the stroke of midnight
on New Year's Eve to ensure good luck in the coming year.
This lucky food varies from country to country. Cubans eat
twelve grapes. In Germany, Poland, and Scandinavia the first
bite is supposed to be herring. For those of us who need all
the luck we can get, this is a dilemma. Take it from one who's
tried it: Pickled herring and grapes together do not taste
like an auspicious start to the year, even when accompanied
by the traditional New Year's beverage, champagne.
That's why many prefer to start the year with the food that
goes best with champagne: caviar. Americans consume roughly
one-third of the world's caviar, which, like oil, has been
called "black gold." And at today's prices for genuine
beluga, osetra, and sevruga caviar from the Caspian Sea (home
to 70 percent of the world's sturgeon population), the term
is especially apt. Even at Marky's, a Russian gourmet market
that has Miami's best prices for fresh caviar, Caspian sturgeon
roe runs from $38 to $170 for a single ounce -- barely enough
to serve one, much less a New Year's gathering of family and
For those who love
the real thing, the inexpensive unrefrigerated faux "caviars"
sold in supermarkets are no substitute. Generally very salty,
oily, fishy, and charmless in texture (either all hard crunch,
like grains of slimy sand, or squished), they're nothing but
pretentious pretense. Luckily, Marky's offers an alternative:
three affordable all-American roes that are ringers for Caspian
caviar, but which in blind taste tests have fooled even some
experts. The roes, which are fresh (unpasteurized) and only
minimally salted, come from three greater Mississippi Valley
fish: hackleback, a type of white sturgeon; paddlefish, a
prehistoric snout-nosed fish related to sharks; and bowfin,
a.k.a. dogfish or blackfish. The price: $8.80 to $11 per ounce.
Though beluga eggs
are the largest and most luxe (three or four times the price
of the other two Caspian caviars), many aficionados prefer
the relative firmness and unique nuttiness of osetra. Marky's
hackleback caviar comes remarkably close. Some of the slightly
sweet fruit or herb tones that make osetra's flavor so complex
were lacking, but the nutty richness was there. So was osetra's
extremely subtle tang (more like champagne than brine), silken
texture, and clean aftertaste.
is known as "American sevruga," and the dark-gray
eggs are indeed virtually indistinguishable in size and color
from their Caspian cousins. In taste and texture, however,
the paddlefish caviar is in many ways more like beluga. While
the individual eggs are admirably distinct (each one unbroken
rather than a mushy matrix), they lack sevruga roe's pronounced
(and fun) pop. Instead, like beluga, they are elegantly delicate.
The flavor is mild, not as bracing as sevruga but with enough
clean liveliness to imbue charm.
In both taste and
texture, the smaller-beaded bowfin caviar at Marky's is less
refined than the other two, but its more intense briny tang
provides interesting and very welcome contrast. To balance
and tame its relatively strong flavor, the jet-black roe is
best served in tiny Siljans-brand croustade pastry shells,
warmed with a little butter to maximize their rich crispness
and filled with imported French creme frache (also available
at Marky's for $3, about half the price of most local gourmet
stores). Sprinkle the shells with lemon and diced sweet onion
right before popping it in your mouth.
This creme frache/caviar
cup treatment would have worked well with the paddlefish and
hackleback caviars too, in terms of taste and also to stretch
the stuff for a New Year's gathering. If you're alone, however,
both these roes are elegant enough to eat with the only accompaniment
I feel is necessary for Caspian caviar: a spoon.