Domestic caviar offers a delicious, sustainable alternative to the diminishing supply of caviar imported from around the Caspian Sea.
Once, a few years ago, I came into a windfall of glistening roe from the belly of a Copper River king salmon, and I decided to make my own caviar. Armed with sketchy instructions from a worker at a cannery in Cordova, Alaska, I dutifully dissolved sea salt in water, swished the salmon eggs around in the brine, then drained them on a screen and packed them into sterilized canning jars to chill. The resulting product was pretty and flavorful, but it was nothing like “real” caviar.
“Real” caviar, depending on how you define real, comes from sturgeon, and if you’re a stickler about it, those fish must come from the Caspian Sea. The “Universal Labeling Laws for Sturgeon Caviar” govern how certain types of caviar must be labeled, but the word itself may be applied to any sort of fish roe, and local caviar expert Dale Sherrow doesn’t like it one bit. Sherrow and his wife, Betsy, launched Seattle Caviar Co. in 1990, and in 1996 opened a retail store. It’s located at 2922 Eastlake Ave. E. and carries a full line of imported and domestic caviar.
“I have trouble with the way some companies will use the word osetra when they’re talking about domestic caviar,” says Sherrow. “Osetra has a very specific meaning; it refers to the species of fish, and it’s associated with that fish in its native habitat. It’s like the way we talk about different types of salmon here in the Northwest.” No one here would call a pink salmon a Copper River king or a Lummi Island sockeye.
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“They’re taking one product and trying to make it sound like a different product that’s more desirable and more expensive.” Osetra (sometimes spelled Ossetra), is one of three types of caviar that have dominated the trade for centuries; the others are Beluga and Sevruga. All three types originated in the Caspian Sea, which is flanked by Iran, Russia and three other former Soviet republics. Beluga, with its relatively larger grain and silvery-gray color, is considered the best of the three; it comes from a very large type of sturgeon known as the Huso huso. Osetra, with medium-sized, brownish gray eggs, is less expensive than Beluga and more expensive than Sevruga, which has smaller eggs and a saltier flavor.
Demand for roe from these three types of sturgeon has put so much pressure on the species that they are severely threatened in the wild. So are other species of wild sturgeon that have been harvested for their roe in other parts of the world. “We’re really concerned about sustainability issues,” says Sherrow, and like most caviar companies, Seattle Caviar relies increasingly on caviar from farm-raised sturgeon. “Sturgeon are being raised in at least 20 different countries, and we buy from four of those countries,” says Sherrow. In the U.S., sturgeon are raised in closed systems that do not impact wild stocks or natural waterways.
So domestic caviar comes without the moral baggage, and it’s much less expensive than the imported stuff. Imported Beluga, when it’s available, generally runs upwards of $250 an ounce. White sturgeon caviar, the homegrown equivalent of Osetra, is sustainably farm-raised in California and costs $92 an ounce at Seattle Caviar. Domestic paddlefish caviar, which resembles Sevruga, is farm-raised in the Pacific Northwest, and at $25 an ounce, it’s a relative steal.
Serving caviar is as important as selecting it. You can keep an unopened jar in the coldest part of the fridge for several days, or even a couple of weeks, but never freeze it; that would ruin the texture and the taste. Serve it directly from the jar, nestled in a bowl of crushed ice. Once it’s opened, eat it all, or at least within a day or two.
Don’t use a metal spoon; it mucks up the taste. Spring for a traditional mother-of-pearl spoon or use disposable spoons. The late M.F.K. Fisher, who claimed that caviar was the one food she couldn’t resist, advised abandoning spoons altogether and simply eating the stuff with potato chips. At my house, we like to serve it with coin-sized buckwheat pancakes or “blini.”
Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Caviar on Buckwheat Blini
Makes 2 dozen small pancakes
Domestic farm-raised white sturgeon or paddlefish produce an environmentally friendly, great-tasting alternative to imported caviar. Buckwheat blini are easy to make; the batter can be prepared a few hours ahead and kept in the refrigerator. The crème frâiche can be held the same way. Line a platter with shredded spinach to create an eye-popping presentation and make it easier to pick up the blini. A clean white napkin will also work.
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
½ cup milk
¼ cup buckwheat flour
¼ cup unbleached white flour
1 egg white
½ teaspoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup crème frâiche
1 ounce American (Montana) paddlefish caviar
1. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and melted butter. Stir in the milk, then the buckwheat flour and the white flour. In a clean, dry bowl, whip the egg white with the lemon juice and salt until it holds stiff peaks. Fold the beaten egg white into the egg yolk-flour mixture; then transfer the batter to a squeeze bottle.
2. Just before serving, squeeze quarter-sized rounds of batter onto a very hot griddle and cook, turning once, for 5 minutes, or until browned.
3. Line a serving platter with shredded spinach or with a clean napkin; Transfer the cooked blini to the serving platter. Spoon or pipe crème frâiche onto the cooked blini and spoon caviar on top of the crème. Serve at once.
Greg Atkinson, 2008