I haven’t eaten eggs for breakfast in twenty years. It’s ironic, given that I grew up on a farm with free-to-roam chickens whose grub-and-worm diet produces some of the most luscious orange yolks in Pennsylvania (or so I’m told). Yes, I’ll eat eggs in things like cake batter, but even crème brûlée is a stretch.
Hypocrite or hedonist, I recently found reason to eat some eggs for breakfast. Two freshly packed tins of Tsar Nicoulai California Osetra Estate Caviar arrived one morning at our office via airmail, and I couldn’t wait to open them.
When I was able to source California caviar for our members, I spent a lot of time learning about this delicacy. Though I adore caviar, I didn’t know as much about it as I thought — the names alone sounded like Greek to me. While I savored spoonful by tiny spoonful, I jotted down some notes to share about this fascinating food.
The sturgeon is practically a dinosaur. Caviar is the name reserved for the roe – or eggs – found in the sturgeon, the common name used for roughly 27 species of fish. Long associated with feasts for Russian royalty, who consumed it with vodka and blinis, these caviar-producing fish actually predate the human race by about 250 million years. The sturgeon outlived dinosaurs. Literally.
Caviar names are not as mysterious as they seem. Sterlet. Osetra. Sevruga. No, this isn’t a Harry Potter spell. These names found on caviar tins refer to the type of sturgeon — the roe harvested from these female fish are named after their species. Beluga is the most expensive, sometimes reaching thousands of dollars per ounce.
You don’t need a castle to enjoy caviar at home. Throughout epicurean history, wild-harvested caviar has largely been reserved for those who could afford its extraordinarily extravagant price. Genghis Khan is recorded as having enjoyed it in 1280, as have Austrian emperors, Turkish khans, Russian tsars, and even Iranian shahs. Caviar still seems like one of those impossible foods, like foie gras, consumed in restaurants or not at all. I dream about eating these luxuries, but these imaginings have never taken place in the comfort of my own kitchen. However, due to American caviar pioneers like Tsar Nicoulai, caviar is now produced domestically and sold at a relatively attainable price. With the proper mother of pearl spoon and an icy glass dish, you can enjoy this delicacy at home.
Caviar can be a guilt-free food. While 27 species of foreign wild sturgeon are now endangered, the farmed, domestic American White Sturgeon is thriving. Fisheries in central California now harvest eggs from sturgeon raised in spring-filled ponds on vegetarian feed, without growth hormones or antibiotics. As the Wall Street Journal reported in the “The Great California Caviar Rush” in May, the breed is actually native to the Pacific Northwest for millions of years. It’s not only sustainably farmed, but also local!
Farmed caviar is delicious. Most farmed fish lacks the color and flavor of a wild, line-caught filet. And most culinary experiences with fish eggs involve tiny exploding tobiko or ikura atop special sushi rolls. Fortunately, farmed caviar is different from both experiences. Its creamy, oceanic flavor is absolutely delicious, and it is far richer and more intense than the brightly colored roe in sushi bars. Though the classic pairing is vodka, it’s also remarkable with Champagne.