Robin Leach, relax. Your champagne wishes are coming true. Caviar, a decadent indulgence that had nearly vanished from the lifestyles of the rich and famous, is back in vogue. Thanks to booming aquaculture production, today's seductive little balls of salted sturgeon roe are ethical, delicious – and relatively affordable, too.
While great caviar was once harvested only from the Caspian Sea, new sturgeon farms in China, Uruguay, Israel, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Finland, Russia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and, yes, Canada have created a sustainable industry to fill the void left by depleted wild stocks.
In fact, farmed caviar is pretty much the only kind (legally) available these days. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a maelstrom of overfishing, poaching and pollution drove the prehistoric fish to the brink of extinction. In 1998, the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) stepped in to protect wild sturgeon from the Caspian and Black Seas with a series of catch and export quotas.
Beluga caviar, the most highly prized eggs from the most critically endangered of the world's 27 sturgeon species, is still outlawed in the United States – even though the CITES ban was partially lifted in 2007, allowing minute amounts to be exported to the rest of the world. While critics question the effectiveness of CITES's variable policies (some say they contribute to a flourishing black market), there is next to no wild Caspian sturgeon caviar sold by reputable dealers – unless you're willing to pay about $750 for a 30-gram tin of Iranian imperial beluga.
But if nature abhors a vacuum, the luxury market disdains it even more. And the new sturgeon farms, which, according to The Caviar Times, have more than doubled global caviar production over the past five years, have spawned an industry that many say is as good, if not better, than the original. Even Armen Petrossian, whose Paris and New York-based caviar houses account for 15 per cent of the world market, now relies 100 per cent on farmed sturgeon.
"Caviar connoisseurs initially shied away from farmed products," says Behzad Tehrani Ami, owner of Vancouver's International House of Caviar Ltd. "In the beginning, it tasted a little muddy. But aquaculture has come very far in a few years. And wild caviar simply isn't an option any more."
The good news for champagne environmentalists is that farm-raised caviar can be eaten with a mother-of-pearl spoon – and a clear conscience. This innovative form of aquaculture uses closed-circulation land-based tanks with fish that are at least two generations removed from wild brood stock.
Given Canada's rising prominence in the global caviar trade – two newly producing farms and a third on its way – we thought it was time to put our tiny black eggs to an international taste test. One night recently, I was joined by Kasey Wilson, the Globe and Mail's West Coast wine critic, plus André Saint-Jacques, a caviar fanatic and owner of the Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, B.C., a fine-dining restaurant that sells more caviar than almost any other in Canada.
We blind-judged six caviars, all different species with three from Canada, on a 10-point score based on appearance (two points), aroma (two points), texture (three points) and taste (three points). The results were fascinating.
Farmed beluga caviar from Germany was the runaway favourite. The beads were larger, fatter and far more flavourful than the rest. No wonder it's so coveted.
Species type primarily accounts for fluctuations in size, shape and colour. Traditional quality rankings prize beluga for its large, pale silver eggs; followed by the extremely rare small, golden sterlet; the medium-sized, brownish osetra; and the smaller, grey sevruga (none of which is currently being farmed).
But when it comes to flavour and texture, water, feed and the delicate art of packaging can also make a difference. Though our tasting panel unanimously adored the Siberian baerii from Germany, the same caviar repackaged by the importer into a smaller tin was markedly more soft, sticky and surrounded by liquid with an undesired fishy aroma.
How did this caviar change so dramatically? It was oxidized, having likely been exposed to too much air when transferred from its original packaging or not resealed tightly enough.
Repackaging is common and necessary for selling smaller quantities (caviar is often imported by the kilogram). But it also offers nefarious opportunities for producers and distributors to lose track of a caviar's origin. Though not always legally required in Canada, repackaged tins should be stamped with a CITES import code. (Our beluga, osetra and repackaged Siberian baerii weren't.) The Canadian caviars showed exceptionally well. Among the three judges, we all had a different favourite. Although we had initial doubts about including Acadian Premium, a legally harvested wild product from New Brunswick that was almost past its best-before date, the fatty roe was so bracingly strong and pleasingly fresh, some of us (okay, it was me) considered it Canada's best.
The initial tastings were interspersed with 2002 vintage Dom Perignon, allegedly the best champagne pairing for caviar. But much to our surprise, sake and vodka pierced through the saltiness and worked better at cleansing the palate. We were also somewhat shocked to see how drastically the caviar flavours changed when paired with unbuttered blinis and crème fraiche. Most, but not all, were enhanced by its traditional accompaniments, which mellowed their natural salt and metallic bitterness.
All in all, this is good news for discerning bargain hunters. Sure, farmed beluga may cost a fraction of the price of the original wild species. But with a little sake and crème fraiche, even the cheapest farmed caviar will please your inner tsarina.
The taste test
Beluga (Huso huso)
Imported by The International House of Caviar from United Food Technologies in Fulda, Germany; $275 for 30 grams
Age: Three months
Appearance: Big, glossy grey grains
Aroma: High-grade sea salt
Texture: Super creamy, not much pop
Taste: Fatty almonds, long rich finish
Panel says: "Crème de la crème of caviar." "Pure."
Siberian Baerii (Acipenser baerii)
Imported by The International House of Caviar from United Food Technologies in Fulda, Germany; $75 for 30 grams
Age: Two months
Appearance: Small, shiny, dark black grains
Aroma: Ocean fresh
Texture: Firm, mild pop
Taste: Sharp saltiness, subtle nuttiness
Panel says: "Shows well in all categories." "Premium caviar."
Acadian Premium – Wild Atlantic Sturgeon – (Acipenser oxyrinchus)
Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar, Carter's Point, N.B.; $75 for 30 grams
Age: Nine months
Appearance: Tiny dark grains
Aroma: Strong fishiness
Texture: Firm, creamy, melts in the mouth
Taste: Clean and briny, hint of walnut
Panel says: "An intensely flavoured caviar that will please traditionalists." "Not for wimps."
Northern Divine – White Sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus)
Target Marine Products, Sechelt, B.C.; $99 for 30 grams
Age: 12 months
Appearance: Small grains, inconsistent colour (dark grey to black), lucid sheen
Texture: Thick membrane
Taste: Buttery, mild saltiness
Panel says: "Full-bodied flavour in a small grain."
Breviro – Shortnose Sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum)
Breviro Caviar, Pennfield, N.B.; $100 for 30 grams
Age: Four months
Appearance: Large, golden beads
Aroma: Garden soil
Texture: Satisfying pop
Taste: Muddy, earthy
Panel says: "It looks like osetra, but tastes like dirt." "Needs more than champagne to cleanse the palate. Maybe we should have paired it with pinot noir – or a tongue scraper."
Asetra (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii)
Imported by the International House of Caviar from Israel – producer unknown; $135 for 30 grams
Age: Three months
Appearance: Crushed grains, drowning in juice
Taste: Tinny, long bitter finish
Panel says: "Horrible on all counts." "Are you sure this is sturgeon?"