Caviar Tasting: A Report


Topsham, Devon 21 January 2000 There are many things in the world that I’ve never tasted or had a chance to experience, and there are many things that I am not that fussed if I never try in my life (goat’s testicles, fermented fish innards, diverse roots and tubers, for example). But I have never had the opportunity to experience real sturgeon caviar, and given that this is considered one of the great delicacies of the world, the occasion of some friends’ birthdays seemed a suitable time to rectify this ommision.
However, on investigating further, we discovered that the costs for beluga, sevruga and oscietra caviars were even more extortionate than imagined. How to choose, how much, how to enjoy? I therefore consulted my expert colleagues on The Guild of Food Writers email discussion list and was given a plethora of advice.
Richard, Earl of Bradford, for example, said, “As, during one glorious period of my life, I was the owner of the Caviar Bar, late 1970s, on Knightsbridge Green in London, where at one time we had over a quarter of a ton of caviar in our fridge I feel reasonably qualified to advise on what has now become a ridiculously overrated and expensive product. Sadly, thanks to over-fishing, indiscriminate poaching and pollution, there will soon be virtually no sturgeon left in the Caspian Sea.”
Margaret Shaida, from Andorra, offered: "Oh dear, now I feel guilty, when I think of all those wonderful years that I lived in Iran and so often enjoyed caviar. Did I really contribute towards the destruction of the Sturgeon? Anyway, a very pleasant man , probably crooked though not very, because he never cheated us with any inferior stuff, would frequently come around to the office. We used to get a tin of 300 grams as a starter for a small dinner party of six-eight, or 500 grams when we put it on the table for self service. Thin toast, lemon juice, chopped boiled eggs and finely chopped onions were on the side, but that was just to make it go further and make it seem more festive. The sophisticated among us would drink vodka with it. For myself, I would just spread it thickly on thinly sliced lightly buttered white bread. And I don’t think I EVER said “Oh, no, not caviar again!”"
Nichola Fletcher, from Auchtermuchty, said, “Rather as a last minute idea, I served caviar with my Millenium fish course and I was surprised how well it worked, but neither could I afford not find at the last minute, enough sturgeon caviar for 14, but saw some herring caviar [called ‘avruga’] in my very good fish merchant in Perth. I'd tried this at the BBC GF Show and liked it. It is completely unlike that salty jet black or bright red bobbly lumpfish "caviar", but both in appearance and taste resembles sturgeon. I would be really interested to try them together as I am sure there must actually be a big difference. May I suggest that you do a comaprison, Marc? Then you can have plenty of caviar and an interesting time.”
We were not, unfortunately, able to procure caviar either by the quarter ton, or even by Margaret’s half kilo. But we did take up Nichola’s idea to have a caviar tasting, and she, very kindly, sent us some of the ‘avruga’ herring caviar to include.
So what we had was this: 50 g jar of sevruga caviar, 2 x 125 g. jars of 'avruga' golden herring caviar; 100 g. jar of keta salmon caviar; 100 g. jar of trout caviar. The champagnes were René Beaudouin 'Cuvée Gidleigh Park'; Lanson Black Label; Krug Grand Cuvée; Perrier Jouët.
Upon gathering, we began the evening nibbling on a bit of oak-smoked salmon on brown bread, and hardboiled quails' eggs topped with various caviars (but not the sevruga), together with the René Beaudouin, an extremely elegant yet richly flavoured 100% chardonnay grower's champagne from the Côte des Blancs. It made the Lanson which followed taste positively thin and disappointingly aggressive (though the procession of bubbles from the grande marque was enviably fine and unending, something even the best growers' champagnes usually struggle to achieve).
Then the blind caviar tasting. The four caviars were arranged around the edge of each plate like dabs of paint on a painter's palette, and in the middle a generous spoonful of the most sublimely simple but exquisite sauce that Nichola had given us the recipe for: simply a couple of bunches of washed and trimmed watercress coarsely chopped then placed in a blender together with Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil and a generous splosh of good aceto balsamico. We had some Ukranian light rye bread on hand, but nothing else at this stage of the evening. Tasting sheets were provided, and I offered wine writer Fiona Beckett’s suggestion that ‘the sexiest way to taste caviar is to place it on your (or someone else's hand) between thumb and forefinger, then lick it off’. So we tasted the caviars naked and unadorned in this fashion, one by one.
The trout was pale orange, with grainy and rather hard balls, slightly fishy in aroma, and with a crunchy, salty, seaweedy character which four of us enjoyed but not me: personally, I did not like the crunchy texture, and found it too fishy. The salmon, slightly darker orange in colour, bigger balls that were softer and more slippery, was less strong, quite delicious, with a delicate flavour that was reasonably long in the mouth. Everyone liked this.
But these two samples were simply tasters to whet the appetite for the main night's event: the comparison between the similar looking 'avrguga' and the real (and very expensive) sevruga caviars. First the 'avruga' (and I reiterate that we tasted blind -- except for myself, no one knew which was which): almost ebony black in colour, smallish eggs, rather soft in texture, with an intriguing smoky aroma, and richly fruity and gamey flavours. The sevruga by contrast was paler, with smaller and finer eggs (is fineness of eggs an attribute of the best caviars, I wonder?). The aroma was rather pungent and concentrated, and it was by far the saltiest and also the longest and most complex, the sort of multi-layered taste that you can roll around your mouth finding greater nuances of flavour and complexity.
With the sevruga, we enjoyed a flûte of Krug: the comparison between the earlier champagnes and the Krug was similar to that of the earlier caviars and the sevruga: entirely on another plane, with so much greater concentration, richness, and flavour. Yet, whereas it would have been impossible (I guess) for anyone not to enjoy the Krug over the other wines (so harmonious and elegant, the biscuity, wood character balanced with a freshness and vivacity that was astonishing), it was not so clear with the caviars. In fact, three of us (Kim, Karen and Wendy) preferred the avruga, while David and I preferred the sevruga. But of course, I knew which was which so perhaps my vote really shouldn't count.
And actually I can see why the others preferred the 'avruga' : again a wine analogy is apt. For if in character it was rather like a new world Chardonnay, the sevruga was more akin to a grand cru Chassagne-Montrachet. The former revealed its fruity flavours and smokey, gamey character more obviously and upfront, whereas the sevruga was more intriguing and challenging, with complex minerally and vegetal high notes emerging from the bass undertones of its richly pungent body of flavour.
We then tried all four caviars again, first with Nicola's sauce, which everyone loved (in fact for some, it was the star of the evening, enjoyed simply mopped up with the rye bread), and then with blinis and crème fraîche topped with a generous teaspoonful of the caviars. It is easy to see why this combination is considered such a classic, and indeed all four caviars were delicious served in this way. I thought that it would kill off the subtleties of the sevruga, but in fact the sharpness and coolness of the cream seemed to intensify the salty richness of the caviar and tasted this way, it was definitely the favourite though the 'avruga' was a very close second. By now we were cleansing our palates with Perrier Jouët, fresh, lemony, rather one-dimensional after the Krug, but, honestly, by this point, who cared?
We had, however, actually eaten very little, and with this in mind, I had, in keeping with the theme of fish eggs, prepared a dish suggested by another member of the Guild, Josephine Bacon, of hardboiled eggs topped with smoked cod's roe whizzed in the blender together with a generous pot of single cream. When I did this, it was still a little too stiff, so I added a good few measures of a dry Sercial madeira, and indeed the complex, cooked, raisiny flavours of that glorious and undervalued fortified wine blended well with the smoky flavour of the roe. I also had on hand some freshly boiled cod's roe that I intended to dredge in egg and seasoned flour, then fry lightly and serve with a squeeze of lemon. But by this stage in the evening, we were completely 'egged out'.
To finish, all we could manage was a spoonful of Hill Station's exquisite cardamon ice cream...
So to recap: both the trout and salmon caviars were enjoyable, especially with blinis, but neither were major league. Nichola's 'avruga' was loved by everyone and was the real star of the evening (even though it costs no more than the first two). The sevruga, like old fine wines, is probably best appreciated by connoisseurs who can distinguish its more subtle and complex character. For our money, however, and given that the former is probably only a tenth of the price of the latter, and based on the sheer pleasure principle, we would certainly purchase and serve the ‘avruga’ again. I would probably not buy sevruga again, but I would certainly never turn it down given the opportunity taste it again (especially if someone else is paying, which is what food writer Richard Erlich opined).
The most disappointed of all in our tasting was our son 12 year old son Guy, who has quite sophisticated tastes, and had been so looking forward to the caviar tasting. However, he discovered on first bite if not sight that fish eggs of whatever provenance or colour are simply not for him: though he wanted to enjoy the caviars, he had trouble with the looks, the texture, the aroma, and the flavour, and so retired upstairs to sulk on his Playstation...
As another Guild member said, “chacun à son goût.”


Copyright © Marc Millon 2000



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