(This piece appeared in the January 2002 issue of North Shore Magazine. Collins Caviar is still going strong, and if you want to order some of their yummy roe, you can find them at http://www.collinscaviar.com/. Binny’s, Schaefer’s, and Patrick Chabert are also still in business, though Schaefer’s has new owners.)
When Shakespeare’s Hamlet said of a play he’d seen, “‘twas caviar to the general,” caviar was barely known in England. Familiar only to gourmets and royalty, it was a fitting metaphor for something the masses could not readily appreciate. Some things have changed during the 400 years since the bard penned those words. Today, refrigeration permits the shipping of this Epicurean delight far from the seas where the roe are harvested. It also permits the use of less salt in the processing. But caviar is still a rare treat that speaks to us, as it did to Shakespeare’s melancholy prince, of sophistication, good living, and scarcity.
Interestingly, though caviar is now one of the costliest foods in the world, there was a time that it was so inexpensive that saloons in the United States offered it free. In the late 1800s, the salty delicacy was placed on lunch counters to encourage customers to order another five-cent beer. Rivers around the world teemed with sturgeon. It was so plentiful in the Hudson that sturgeon was called “Albany beef.” At the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. still had a thriving caviar industry. But today, the sturgeon, which gives the best (and, according to many sources, only real) caviar, is becoming increasingly rare. Overfishing and pollution both threaten the sturgeon, so populations have dwindled. (Fortunately, Russian scientists have now discovered how to remove the eggs without killing the sturgeon, which can be released after harvesting.)
The word caviar (also spelled caviare) comes from the Turkish khavyar, Turkey, which borders the Black Sea, having been among the earliest countries to prepare the delicacy. Other words associated with sturgeon roe are beluga, osetra, sevruga, and, more recently, American. The first three terms apply only to Caspian Sea caviar and refer to the species of sturgeon that bear the eggs. The beluga sturgeon is the largest (it can exceed 2,000 pounds) and rarest of the Caspian sturgeons.
The “berries” (or “grains”) of beluga caviar are large. The texture is silky, and the caviar melts on your tongue. The color tends toward gray-black, and is rated “0” for the darkest color, “00” for medium-dark, and “000” for the lightest, which is the color of gray pearls. However, color does not necessarily mean the best taste—because even at these exalted quality levels, connoisseurs do not entirely agree on what is “best.” A degree of personal preference is involved.
Osetra, while not as rare as beluga, cannot really be called “second best.” There are many who prefer its rich flavor, which ranges from nutty to fruity. The berries are not quite as large as the beluga’s, but the texture is as silky. Because osetra sturgeons mature more quickly than belugas (12 to 14 years, as opposed to 18 to 20), this caviar is more common and less costly. Sevruga, while still a delight, with a delicate, fresh flavor, differs from beluga and osetra in being more common—and in popping, rather than melting, in your mouth.
American sturgeon caviar may not have the cachet of some of the imports, but it is definitely a contender in this prize fight. The pearly-gray berries, though smaller than those of some of their Caspian counterparts, offer rich flavor and the silky, melting texture of their costlier cousins. The very slight difference in taste is well compensated by the smaller price tag. The related American paddlefish—which is even stranger in appearance than the oddly prehistoric sturgeon—also gives beautiful caviar.
Another important word to know if shopping for imported caviar is malossol. It means “lightly salted.” This is the highest quality within whatever category you are buying. Because caviar is extremely perishable, it is often heavily salted, to preserve it. It may also be pressed (if the eggs have been broken) or pasteurized (eggs are slightly cooked). These processes offer caviar that lasts longer, but taste and texture suffer. It is for these more heavily processed caviars (or for the roe of other fish—which, while not necessarily caviar, are still a delicacy) that you trot out your chopped egg and onion, or stir into dips.
But avoid adulterating the good stuff. “If it’s good caviar, keep it simple,” advises chef Patrick Chabert. “You want things as natural as possible.” Chabert was sous chef at Le Francais for 16 years but now focuses mainly on catering. He says that the best way to eat caviar is to put it on your tongue and crush it against the roof of your mouth. You might serve it on a little bit of buttered toast, or possibly add a dab of crème fraîche. Blinis are acceptable, too. But a spoon is all you really need.
Chabert offers a couple of warnings: don’t chew the caviar, don’t cook caviar, and don’t keep caviar too long. Once opened, eat caviar promptly. If storing it unopened, turn the container upside down every other day, to redistribute the brine and preserve the flavor. He recommends putting it on ice if you’re serving it on a buffet, but this is unnecessary if it’s going from refrigeration to individual plate. He adds that caviar may be the only food where it is acceptable to serve it in the jar or can. “Allow about one ounce per person as an appetizer,” Chabert suggests. “Caviar is good with vodka or champagne. Everyone’s taste is different, though all the better caviars are enjoyable. I prefer the osetra, and enjoy it with a good brut champagne.”
Dale Maple, General Manager of Binny’s Beverage Depot in Highland Park, echoes Chabert’s sentiment about simplicity. “Great caviar is buttery and silky,” she states. “What you’re looking for is one you don’t have to cover up.” Maple explains that, because sturgeon have been fished so heavily in Russian seas, most of the Caspian caviar now comes from Iran. Iranian caviar is processed under tight government control, “similar to the way the French government controls wine production,” she explains. The processing plants are virtually inaccessible, both politically and physically, with many of them on moored boats or off-shore platforms. This is done both to guarantee quality and reduce illegal fishing.
Maple observes that, as Caspian Sea caviar becomes increasingly scarce, consumers are turning more often to American caviars, to flavored, lower-grade caviars, or to other fish roe. She also says that, while one ounce is traditionally considered a single serving, one can offer as little as one-quarter ounce, if other canapés are served. (Patrick Chabert suggests caviar with salmon, especially smoked salmon or salmon mousse.)
The imported caviar is not gone, however. Sandra Petersen, Manager of Schaefer’s Wine and Liquors in Skokie, identifies Petrossian as “the Dom Perignon of caviar, with a history back to the Czars.” But Petersen notes that, like most merchants, they offer other options. “We have Petrossian, but we also stock Marky’s, which offers good, consistent quality that is not quite as expensive.” Petersen adds that, for those who are a little worried about getting started, Caviar Creme Spreads from Collins Caviar, which combine caviar and seasoned cream cheese, make caviar more approachable. “Everyone loves these spreads,” she notes. “They offer a good first experience.”
In addition to the Creme Spreads, Chicago-based Collins Caviar is also the purveyor of fine—some say the finest—American caviars. The company offers high-end classic caviars, flavored caviars, and caviar products that have placed this luxury item within the reach of a few more people.
Carolyn Collins actually did not start out to build the top caviar company in the U.S.—she just wanted to eat well. She came to love caviar while living in Italy after graduating from the University of Chicago. When she and her husband later started a Great Lakes fishing charter business, she was horrified to watch successful anglers throwing out buckets of fish eggs. She decided to learn how to make caviar. A few months of experimenting in her own kitchen led to her first success, with Chinook salmon roe. Next came lake trout, and soon she was testing everything, to see how it would work.
When Collins served the caviar to a friend who’d come for dinner, he exclaimed excitedly, “This is fabulous. I must serve it at my restaurant. Where did you buy it?” Collins’s confession was the beginning of the business. She was going through a divorce and needed an income, so she and daughter Rachel started to do the homework that would bring them to market. They discovered that no one else in the U.S. was doing hand-processing, and they also learned that Collins’s technique produced a caviar of incredible quality.
Collins had been in the food business before—her family had owned a restaurant called Martinetti’s—so she knew the ins and outs of the industry, and knew a few chefs. She also knew what the so-called “New American Chefs” wanted. “In 1982,” Collins relates, “I started walking into restaurants saying, ‘Hi, I’m Carolyn Collins, and you have to taste my caviar.’ My first three clients were Gordon, the 95th, and Ambria.” The business took off quickly, and the company was incorporated in 1983. Rachel was away at college by this time, but rejoined her mother when she graduated.
Today, Rachel is VP of Collins Caviar, and is expanding both the product line and the customer base. She explains that they no longer have time to catch their own fish, but rely on commercial fisheries. The roe are flash-frozen and transported to their kitchens. “The big commercial companies process caviar by machine, do it all at once, and freeze it. We’re the only company that does it fresh year-round, and we still do it all by hand. We will never compromise our quality.”
Taking caviar seriously doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. Collins has invented flavor-infused caviars and fish roe. When she was asked to be a sponsor for the Absolut ski races, Collins responded with Citron and Peppar caviar, to go with Absolut vodka. When research turned up the fact that Pacific Northwest tribes used to smoke fish roe, Collins did too. Other roe and other flavors followed.
Both Carolyn and Rachel Collins are passionate about taste and quality. But they are also interested in sharing what they know. They take their caviar to schools, as well as restaurants, and look for other ways to broaden the culinary experience of others.
As you prepare to indulge in caviar, remember to treat it well. It must be refrigerated. Don’t open it until needed. Be gentle, or the eggs will break. And if you don’t have traditional gold or mother-of-pearl caviar spoons, break out the picnic ware. You’re better off serving it with plastic than with your best silver, because caviar picks up the flavor of most metals.
With its shimmering berries, exquisite flavor, and rarity, good caviar is definitely one of gastronomy’s crown jewels. It was once the prerogative of Persia’s shahs and Russia’s czars (Nicholas II received taxes in the form of caviar—about eleven tons of it a year). But today, these jewels—whether classic caviar or one of its more accessible relatives—can sparkle in any setting.