Delicacy From the Sea: Aficionados sing the praises of caviar

Caviar isn’t what it used to be. Delicious still, yes. Exclusive still, yes. Yet decadent it is no longer.

Decadent is spitting it out or banning it for everyone but czars or depleting a fish population to keep profits high. Caviar’s more recent history contains much less excess. The question is, what remains of its mystique?

“I think the mystery and the glamour of caviar have kind of dwindled with the ever-dying economy,” said David Guempel, executive chef and owner of Zinnia in Webster Groves. “We have a lot of people who say, ‘Don’t put the caviar on it,’” he added.

Many restaurants in the area don’t serve caviar at all, and even upscale restaurants such as Busch’s Grove in Ladue only offer it irregularly. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” said executive chef Todd Lough in reference to the unsteady demand for cured sturgeon roe at his restaurant.

Those were the days

Time was, however, when caviar was a big culinary to-do.

“Once upon a time in Russia, caviar was humble peasant food, eaten by everyday people at home. When the Caspian Sea’s sturgeon became a czar’s pleasure, caviar turned into a sign of great wealth,” said Fio Antognini, a former restaurateur and currently chef and proprietor at caterer Fio’s Culinary Adventures in St. Louis.

When Peter the Great ruled Russia, he famously indulged Louis XV with a gift of caviar. (The French king then famously spat it out.) Afterward, caviar was coveted by aristocrats across Europe. One Russian noble family, it’s told, kept 45 pounds of caviar on hand at all times.

Michael Mandato, executive chef at The Ritz-Carlton in Clayton, experienced another, more recent heyday. “The first time I had caviar, I was 18 years old and I was working at Tavern on the Green. This was back in the ’80s, and times were just really good back then. Some of the chefs there got some Iranian beluga and they offered me a taste of it,” he said. “It was fabulous,” he added after a pause.

Still exquisite

Guempel likewise has a taste for the crispy saline delicacy. “I love caviar! The Ritz-Carlton sees me come in at brunch and they hide the caviar because I will eat the whole tin,” he laughed.

Antognini adores it too. “Caviar is one of the most unique and wonderful of foods in culinary history,” he said. “The perfect fresh sturgeon caviar should feel like little pearls. The texture is smooth and silky with just the right balance of crispiness and a rich complex flavor.”

Traditionally, people have eaten this exquisite edible with a special spoon. “Years ago,” Antognini explained, “caviar spoons made from bone, mother-of-pearl and even tortoise shell were recommended for caviar serving. Some caviar aficionados continue to utilize delicate nonmetallic spoons, keeping the tradition of elegance alive.” Why all the fuss over accoutrement? Household spoons can taint fish eggs with a metallic aftertaste.

Use a small spoon

Aleksey Boyko, who owns the European Delicatessen in Creve Coeur, moved to St. Louis from Kharkov, Ukraine. Who eats caviar in that part of the world? “Everybody,” he said. “If you can afford it.”

Regardless of where you live, caviar costs a lot. This explains why both caviar spoons and the tins and jars in which the product’s packaged are small.

Most caviar is processed with a single ingredient: salt. Yet doing this is harder than it might seem. “Oh, sure,” said Kathryn Rost, co-owner of Show-Me Caviar in Morrison, when asked if it’s difficult to add the right amount of salt. “I couldn’t go and hire somebody and expect them to make the caviar like I do,” she said.

The limited production of Show-Me raises the price of its caviar (which is still considerably lower than that of imports). The length of time it takes for its paddlefish and hackleback to mature, seven to 10 years, is another factor.

Another thing that contributes to caviar’s high price tag in general is that the roe must be removed from fish expeditiously – within 15 minutes in some operations. Then the individual eggs are released from the ovarian membrane using a filter. Their fragility demands delicate handling at all times; otherwise, the eggs will be reduced to a rotten-tasting mash. As a product that spoils quickly, caviar must be kept cold whether it’s in transport or on a table, and any chef who orders it must be confident it’ll be consumed before it expires.

Caviar should have some resistance – a pop or light crunch – when eaten; if it doesn’t, it may not be fresh.

Caspian Sea varieties, traditionally the most prized, cost a lot for additional reasons. One, the Caspian is an often storm-fraught sea whose northern parts freeze over in the winter. (Not very fisher-friendly, in other words.) Export expenses play a role too. Then there are the interlocked issues of scarcity and endangerment.

Albany beef

Until about 10 years ago, the Caspian Sea and its tributaries teemed with a variety of sturgeon species. The most notable of these is the beluga, which yields the eponymous, highly prized caviar. By one estimate, the numbers of this large, 200-million-year-old fish have plunged by 90 percent since the early ’80s. Other species are likewise threatened and have likewise been closely monitored for the past decade by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The roster of causes for Caspian sturgeons’ decline reads all too familiar: pollution, habitat loss, poaching and overfishing.

Russia isn’t the first country to face such problems. At the turn of the 20th century, the Hudson River bore so many sturgeon, or “Albany beef” as it was then called, that caviar was literally given away at blue-collar bars. (Salty caviar encouraged patrons’ thirst.) Over time, the fish population plummeted, the Hudson became polluted and Russia succeeded America as the world’s top caviar producer.

International darling

Several countries including Kazakhstan, Iran, Uruguay, China, Serbia and Bulgaria make caviar. Bob’s Seafood in University City carries additional varieties from France, Spain and Iceland.

American caviar bounced back in 1979 after political tensions with Iran and Soviet Russia intensified. Some people view anything but the “big, delicious sturgeon” as an “abomination,” Guempel said. Yet domestic varieties (largely paddlefish, technically a cousin of the sturgeon, and hackleback) are gaining ground all the time – and not just in America.

Missouri caviar maker Steve Kahrs, co-owner of Osage Catfisheries in Osage Beach, said his company cannot keep up with the requests its gets from all across the country and the globe. “If I had 10,000 pounds, I could have sold it to Japan this spring,” he said.

“In blind caviar tastings – where the taster has no preconceived image derived from knowledge of the caviar’s origin – American caviars are winning high marks,” Antognini said. Recently, he sidled up to the caviar bar at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. His favorite was a domestic, he said.

Although there is currently a U.S. ban on imported beluga caviar, it’s possible to find the other Russian classics, osetra and sevruga. Sometimes the caviar’s wild, other times it’s farm-raised – and Russia may or may not be the country of origin. Marky’s, a Miami-based brand available at Bob’s Seafood, sells wild sevruga from Russia and both wild osetra from Russia and a farm-raised variety made with white sturgeon that’s raised in California or France.

When narrowly defined, “caviar” only applies to cured sturgeon roe. Roe refers to the eggs of any fish still encased in the ovarian membrane. More and more, however, the terms are used interchangeably.

Same but different

“I think that yes, it can be called a caviar if it’s cured as a caviar is cured,” Guempel said.

Antognini doesn’t sweat semantics either. “There exists today the best variety of caviar from around the world since I’ve been enjoying caviar,” Antognini said. “Producers are meeting the demand for lower-sodium caviars, as well as a wide assortment of flavored caviars.”

“It would be nice to do a little caviar sampler with three different kinds of caviar,” said Guempel, brainstorming for holiday menus. He sees caviar first and foremost as special-occasion fare. Other chefs appear to also, as caviar sales at Bob’s Seafood peak between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

“Caviar-lovers come in all shapes and sizes,” Antognini said. “There certainly are many more dishes and ingredients available worldwide than ever, but caviar is still very popular.”

When it comes to the $100-an-ounce delicacy from the sea, it seems that not everything has changed.