Caviar Gifts

How to Buy, Serve and Enjoy Caviar

Caviar Down on the Farm

The Big Splurge

Almost any kind of caviar is a luxury for most people, but then Bentleys and Cadillacs are both considered luxury cars. Here’s what you can look forward to if your startup just went public.

While there is no caviar from Caspian Sea Beluga sturgeon (Huso huso), the ne plus ultra of caviar for most folks, there is caviar from Kaluga sturgeon, what caviar purveyor Browne Trading Company calls “the scientific brother of the famed Beluga Sturgeon.” Kaluga sturgeon (Huso dauricus) is native to the Amur River basin shared by Russia and China. The Amur River has been degraded much like the Caspian. So the harvesting of wild Kaluga has been banned with the hope that stocks will rise in the coming years. Fortunately, unlike the Beluga, Kaluga has taken well to farming in China.

Still, you might be wary of something so delicate and dear as caviar coming from a country that doesn’t exactly have a sterling environmental reputation. However, according to Hossein Aimani of Paramount Caviar, China made a very smart move in the early stages of its sturgeon farming industry: It brought in caviar experts from Iran, which, with the former Soviet Union, knew more about caviar than any other country.

The result, says Aimani, is that “China has done a good job making a consistent product with Kaluga and Schrencki (the latter a sturgeon more like osetra). Top chefs have no problem using the caviar because they taste it side by side (other caviars). So they see the quality.”

I tasted two Kaluga caviars. One from Browne Trading (which calls its Kaluga Imperial Huso) had large, grey-green eggs that were nicely separated. They were buttery with earthy notes though somewhat salty. Paramount’s Kaluga was also buttery, but its shiny grey-black eggs were more delicate and less salty.

As with Beluga, Kaluga is a large sturgeon that takes a long time to reach sexual maturity, up to 23 years. The wait for those eggs is one reason for its price tag.  Expect to pay $185 and $275 an ounce, enough for one serving, plus shipping.

In addition to selling Kaluga individually, Paramount is offering four ounces of Kaluga with 500 grams Balik salmon in its Ultimate Indulgence gift package for $750 plus shipping. Browne Trading combines 50 grams of Imperial Huso with equal amounts of

Galilee Prime (from Israel), Royal Osetra and Browne Trading’s own farmed Osetra from Germany in its Connoisseur’s Collection for $600 plus shipping. The wooden gift box also includes four mother-of-pearl caviar spoons and a shell palette for service. Petrossian’s Family Size Basket ($3,500 plus shipping) contains 125 grams of Kaluga and the same amount of Alverta special reserve Transmontanus caviar and Israeli Gueldenstaedtti osetra caviar along with a mother-of-pearl caviar spoon and blini.

The Alverta is one of three grades of caviar from white sturgeon farmed in California. Petrossian bases these grades on the age of the caviar. Didn’t know caviar could be aged? It can. Alverta is the most aged (six to eight months) and it was a revelation when I tasted it at the Petrossian Restaurant in New York. The Alverta was buttery but also meaty with earthy and nutty notes and a gentle salinity. It was hard to believe that this delicious caviar came from American farm-raised sturgeon. Eleven years ago, I wrote “Don’t laugh if there comes a time when someone says, ‘as American as caviar.’” Today, American caviar has arrived.

Finally, you will be seeing limited supplies of Sevruga caviar this holiday season. So if you are a fan of this smallest of the three Caspian sturgeon, don’t wait too long. Marky’s, a caviar purveyor based in Miami, is offering Sevruga Karat Caviar Malossol at $150.00 an ounce. (Malossol refers to caviar that has been minimally salted.)

Flexible Caviar Solutions

Caviar purveyors often allow you to trade up or down with the type and price of caviars in gift sets. In some cases, such as the Petrossian Boutique in West Hollywood, the store can custom design a holiday gift basket if given enough time.

Paramount’s Imported Farmed Caviar Sampler includes two-ounce jars of Arabian Gueldenstaedtti Osetra hybrid caviar,

French Baerii Osetra-type caviar, Italian Transmontanous Osetra-type caviar, crème fraiche, imported blini and a mother-of-pearl spoon for $425.00 plus shipping. But you can also get the same caviars in one-ounce jars ($235) or four-ounce jars ($795).

Marky’s offers similar options in its Aqua Caviar Gift Basket of Farmed Caviar ($224.36 plus shipping), which includes one ounce each of Italian Baerii, Karat Amber and California Osetra (white sturgeon) caviars along with blini, crème fraiche and a mother-of-pearl spoon.

The Arabian Gueldenstaedtti Osetra hybrid caviar is from sturgeon farmed in Saudi Arabia. The fish was created by cross breeding two sturgeon species, Gueldenstaedtti (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii), one of the most highly regarded of Caspian osetra sturgeon, and Siberian or Baerii (Acipenser baerii) sturgeon. In my tasting at Paramount I found that this eggy, buttery caviar had a more assertive profile than caviar from other (though not all) farmed sturgeon.

The French have been producing caviar from Baerii sturgeon since 1993 and it has a good reputation. Browne Trading used to get French Baerii caviar but now sources it from a farm in Florida. Called Siberian caviar in the Browne Trading catalogue, this caviar had large, dark shiny gray grains, which had an eggy richness balanced by good salinity and a rich finish. At $52 an ounce, this caviar represents an exceptional value. 

Another good deal is the Russian Osetra Karat Amber Caviar from Marky’s (one ounce, $82.50). Farmed in Israel, the sample I tasted had good-size, grayish eggs with green tints. The eggs were nicely separated and had a buttery richness balanced by a refreshing sea breeze quality. (The Russian Osetra Karat also comes in Gold but this rarer caviar sells for $130 an ounce.)

Affordable

Even if your ship hasn’t come in yet, you can still afford caviar this holiday season. One of the best ways to do that is to go with caviar from lesser known sturgeon and fish that are not even sturgeon.

Hackleback sturgeon can be found in the wild within the Mississippi River system, especially in the rivers and lakes of Tennessee and Illinois. The quality of American caviars like Hackleback has improved because now they are being processed with greater care, much like that given to Caspian caviar in the past. Thus, you will sometimes see Hackleback and Paddlefish caviar marked as “malossol”, which means less salt, a designation that finer Caspian caviars traditionally used.

If you think caviar should be black, this is your caviar. The jet-black, glistening eggs I tasted at Paramount had a satiny sheen and an eggy, buttery flavor with earthy notes. Purchased by itself, Hackleback can be as low as $42 for two ounces (at Paramount). Marky’s features Hackleback in one-ounce jars along with equal amounts of Paddlefish, Bowfin and Salmon Caviars in its Nations Caviar Gift Basket (it’s actually a handsome wooden box) for $72.07. The package also includes blini, crème fraiche and a mother-of-pearl spoon.

Paddlefish (also known as Spoonbill), so called because of their oar-like snouts, aren’t sturgeon, but close enough to be considered a cousin. Their roe looks very much like Caspian sevruga caviar. They’re also caught wild in the Mississippi River system though there is some farming is being done.

The Paddlefish I tasted from Marky’s had glistening grey grains (what caviar eggs are sometimes called along with “beads”) that were well separated. I liked the balance of flavors this caviar had, showing a combination of earthiness, butteriness and a moderate degree of salinity. Hackleback and Paddlefish caviar can be as little as $20 an ounce.

Because it is often found in swamps and sluggish streams from the St. Lawrence River to Florida, the bowfin is sometimes called the mudfish. I did not taste any bowfish caviar for this story but my memories of it in the past were not as positive as those from Paddlefish and Hackleback.

Salmon roe not only represents an affordable price, it offers a pleasing color contrast. Unfortunately, just about every salmon caviar I’ve tasted was too fishy. If you want an orangey splash of color on your holiday caviar sampler, let me suggest rainbow trout roe from Denmark or France, which I tasted at Paramount. Bright orange like salmon, the eggs were smaller and much less fishy. I also liked their crunch and pleasant salinity. They cost about 50 percent more than salmon caviar, but that’s still bargain basement pricing.

There are two exceptions to the other and non sturgeon rule for affordable caviar. One is Petrossian’s Simple Caviar ($120 plus shipping) which contains 12 grams each of three aged Transmontous caviars from white sturgeon farmed in California: Royal (aged 2 to 4 months, Czar Imperial (aged 4 to 6 months) and Alverta (aged 6 to 8 months).

The other is Schrenckii caviar, though it might it might not fit the strict definition of “affordable” at $95 an ounce. Also known as Shassetra, caviar from Schrenckii sturgeon (Acipenser Schrenckii) is worth considering if you are thinking of trading down from more expensive caviars like Kaluga. As with Kaluga, Schrenckii is native to the Amur River Basin. But it is smaller, more like osetra than beluga. It is also more assertive with an earthiness that is balanced by an eggy and buttery richness. As Hossein Aimani said to me, “other osetras are fine but they don’t have the ‘Wow’ factor (Schrencki has).” And ‘tis the season to be wowed.

How to Get it

  • Browne Trading Company, Portland, ME, 800-944-7848
  • Marky’s, Miami, FL 800-522-8427www.markys.com
  • Paramount Caviar, Long Island City, NY 800-992-2842, www.paramountcaviar.com
  • Petrossian, New York, NY, 800 828 9241, www.petrossian.com

Note: This was originally published in Wine Spectator in December 2011. Prices and availability may vary from those listed above.

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