It’s easy to feel intimidated by caviar. It’s an ingredient that has become synonymous with black tie events. In the rare event it appears on the hors d’oeuvre menu of a party or a fine dining restaurant, it’s usually served as a tiny dollop atop a small cracker or in a small container where guests scoop caviar for themselves, albeit sparingly. Over the years, caviar has gained a perception of exclusivity in the United States, making it feel unapproachable to many Americans, but the culture of caviar is seen differently in the Russian community.
Part of caviar’s elusiveness is driven by its story. Caviar begins as the roe (unfertilized eggs) of fish from the sturgeon family. It takes about 10 years for a mature female sturgeon’s eggs to be ready, at which point the fish is caught and the eggs are removed with surgical precision.
It gained a reputation as a luxury dish around the 1200’s when it became popular among the Russian Tsars. For centuries, roe was predominantly sourced from wild-caught sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, the most expensive and precious of which came from the beluga sturgeon. Stories of how the roe was meticulously harvested and brought directly from the sea to the Russian Tsars’ court, perpetuated the idea that it was a precious item reserved for only the elite. From there, its popularity spread across Europe, and as the world developed a taste for the precious eggs that hailed from Russian seas, demand for caviar skyrocketed along with its price.
Price versus Perception
The perception that Russia’s beluga sturgeon caviar was the world’s best persisted despite the fact that other countries harvested roe, as well. From 1985 to 2005, beluga sturgeon populations in the Caspian Sea declined by 90%, causing its price in 2005 to jump up to $200 per ounce in the United States. The overfishing of the Caspian Sea was partly because of the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s and the collapse of its Ministry of Fisheries, which controlled Russian caviar production. From that point, it was a fishing free-for-all, and in an effort to preserve beluga sturgeon’s population in the Caspian Sea, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service banned its importation.
Today, nearly all of the caviar sold in the United States is farm-raised and there are more kinds available on the market than just the highly coveted and rare wild beluga. The main types of traditional caviar are Beluga, Sterlet, Kaluga hybrid, American osetra, Ossetra, Siberian sturgeon and Sevruga, but the market has also expanded beyond sturgeon species to include roe from salmon, steelhead, trout, lumpfish, whitefish and carp. With this much variation and availability, caviar doesn’t always have to come with an exorbitant price tag. Yes, it’s a premium product, but it is possible to find quality caviar at a fair price, according to Bonnie Morales, chef and co-owner of Kachka, a Russian restaurant in Portland, Oregon.
“Overall, it’s about making sure to represent a variety of sturgeon species and being able to talk to people about how they’re different,” says Morales, describing her goals for Kachka’s caviar menu. When it comes to offering caviar, Morales sees it as an opportunity to educate diners about the variations and subtle nuances that lend to each product’s distinct texture and flavor. “I like to talk about caviar in the same way that people talk about wine,” says Morales. “I like to make sure we’re giving people a safe and trusting environment, where they know that we’ve done the legwork and the homework for them, so they know that they’re going to be getting something that’s of really good value and quality.”
Caviar: A Cause for Celebration
Though Morales was born in the United States, her parents immigrated from the Soviet Union, from what is now Belarus. Growing up in a Russian household, Morales developed a love for caviar at a very young age. “For me growing up, any time there was a party, there was always black caviar on the table,” says Morales.
Within the Russian community, caviar is available at most parties and eating generous servings of the silky, smoky flavored roe is actually encouraged. It’s eaten by the spoonful, large quantities are scooped on top of other dishes like eggs or potatoes, and it’s the star ingredient of the caviar sandwich. Even the children get to enjoy caviar by the mouthful. Morales has fond childhood food memories of eating caviar on white bread with butter. “It was celebratory but casual,” says Morales. “It was considered to be something festive, something related to having a party and entertaining, but no one ever felt like they were taking too much. It was just a normal part of any gathering.”
The caviar may not be Russian, but the culture surrounding it certainly is. In fact, the Russian culture of celebratory caviar was the inspiration behind Sarah Steinberg’s Philadelphia Caviar Company, a concierge service specializing in hand delivering caviar throughout Philadelphia. “I think it’s such a fun way to celebrate,” says Steinberg. “There are not that many foods that are a celebration all on their own. It’s a fun ritual to put out a really nice spread and enjoy some caviar and have some champagne. I don’t think there’s many foods like caviar that carry such an emotion of celebration with them.”
Steinberg was introduced to Russian caviar culture by her husband, Oleg Sokolov, who was born in Kiev, Ukraine. One weekend while they were still dating, he bought caviar for them to split. “It was such a fun experience just being able to serve as much as I wanted for myself,” says Steinberg. They indulged for the entire weekend, enjoying caviar on toast and eggs for breakfast, on blinis, as well as straight from the container. To Steinberg, it was an incredibly extravagant experience, but to Sokolov, it was like any other celebration. “That’s when I started to learn that not every culture’s perspective of caviar is that it’s reserved for the upper class. It’s something that you get for celebratory reasons.”
Steinberg and Sokolov started serving caviar at their dinner parties and gave caviar as gifts to their friends. They even served caviar at their wedding. It didn’t take long before friends started asking the couple if they could purchase caviar from them. Steinberg started the Philadelphia Caviar Company, and since launching about a year ago, she notes that most of her company’s sales have been gifts sent to loved ones. “It’s unexpected,” says Steinberg who is usually the one hand delivering each package of caviar to its lucky recipient. “People are so excited because it’s not a usual gift.”
How to enjoy caviar
Though Morales and Steinberg are on opposite coasts, they share a common mission: to change the perception that caviar is unattainable and to encourage people to enjoy it more often. The first step in this process is to get people to try it. “Once people are introduced to caviar and they see that it’s more attainable than what they thought, everyone really likes it,” says Steinberg.
Every order of caviar delivered by the Philadelphia Caviar Company is packaged in a gift bag like a present. The glass jar of caviar is tucked away in a red velvet bag along with a small spoon made of Mother of Pearl. “Metal can taint the taste of caviar if its exposed to it for too long,” says Steinberg. “Mother of pearl is a neutral substance that won’t taint the flavor at all.” To maximize the caviar tasting experience, Steinberg also offers blinis, crème fraiche, latkes, and even potato chips.
“For caviar, you want rich on rich, that’s why people have enriched breads like challah or brioche” says Morales. When it comes to spreads that pair well with the briny depth of caviar, Morales says that crème fraiche is fine, but recommends room temperature butter as the defacto accompaniment. “Butter is richer. It matches the richness of the caviar and can enhance its more delicate components,” says Morales. Morales is so passionate about pairing caviar with butter that she actually churns her own Russian-style butter at Kachka.
Though caviar tastes great piled on potatoes, blinis, and white bread, nothing beats eating caviar by itself and experiencing the sensation of the smooth roe bursting with intense flavors of the sea. “I want people to not be afraid to put too much in their mouth at a time,” says Morales. “That is the most common misstep because you may think it’s too precious and want to stretch it out. Or it’s such a strong flavor that it’s too intimidating to have all at once. But I think to really truly enjoy caviar fully, you want to have a good amount of it at a time. Really take a moment to experience it. Don’t ration out your beads.”