The one inviolable rule in buying caviar is to buy it fresh. Beyond that, there are many options confronting the purchaser of the food of kings.
Only the fish eggs, or roe, of the sturgeon, can be called caviar. When the eggs of other fish, such as salmon or bowfin or lumpfish are sold the caviar must be identified as salmon caviar or whitefish caviar. The highest quality caviar comes from sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea, the inland sea bordered by Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Iran.
The Russians, who operate the largest commercial caviar fisheries, have been harvesting sturgeon for over 200 years from the Caspian. Sturgeon fishing was strictly regulated before the break-up of the Soviet Union, but since the fall of Communism, an unchecked stream of small fisheries threaten to destroy the highly-prized sturgeon.
It is estimated that sturgeon populations have declined by as much as 70 percent in the past 100 years.
In addition to the Caspian sturgeon, there are American and Chinese cousins of the fish. These smaller varieties also produce caviar. The most commonly found in stores is the American variety of caviar from sturgeon found in Tennessee.
The caviar comes from three different types of sturgeon, each producing a different grade of product in the market. The largest sturgeon is the massive Beluga which can weigh more than one ton and reach lengths of more than 20 feet. The Beluga, which is the rarest sturgeon, produces the largest roe which is black or gray.
Osetra is also a large sturgeon that reaches 10 feet in length and weighs over 500 pounds. Caviar from the Osetra sturgeon range in color from light gold to dark brown. The gold Osetra caviar, known as royal caviar, is the rarest type of Osetra.
The smallest caviar-producing sturgeon from the Caspian Sea is the Sevruga. This fish can weigh up to 150 pounds and reach seven feet in length. It is the most abundant of the Caspian sturgeon. Sevruga caviar is small and gray in color.
Caviar is processed by straining the fish roe through a fine mesh screen and graded by size and color. At this point, a precise amount of mild salt, known as Malossol is added to prevent the caviar from freezing. Caviar makers, known in Russia as ikrjanschiks, apprentice for more than 10 years to learn the exact procedure for salting fine caviar. The caviar is then stored at temperatures between 26 and 31 degrees Fahrenheit and packed into 4-pound tins for shipping.
When the importer unpacks and repackages the caviar it is sold fresh in jars or tins, typically in 1-ounce containers. Beluga caviar ($30 – $60 an ounce) is always sold in blue tins, Osetra caviar ($25 – $50 an ounce) is always sold in yellow tins and Sevruga Caviar ($20 – $45 an ounce) is always sold in red tins. American caviar generally cost less than $20 an ounce.
Those are the choices in buying caviar. Now for the inviolable rule.
The best caviar is freshest. Once caviar is imported and repackaged it has a shelf life in the stores of only 2-3 weeks. Fresh caviar is sold only in refrigerated cases. Caviar should be purchased in small portions to ensure that the seller is a quality dealer. If purchased from a mail-order house, caviar should be shipped overnight and find out how a company packages the caviar before ordering.
Once in the home, the caviar should be consumed within 3-4 days, stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not the freezer. If the tin cannot be finished, leftover caviar can be preserved for a short time by pressing plastic wrap against the surface of the eggs. Rotate the tins twice a day to distribute the oils.
Lovers of caviar can also do their part to ensure the continued availability of sturgeon caviar. When buying caviar ask for proof that the caviar was legally imported as all retailers should be able to show documentation of legally imported caviar. This will discourage unregulated black market traffic in the prized delicacy.Lovers of caviar