Caviar is a strange thing. You either love it or hate it. There seems to be no grey area here. I have, in my close quarters, also started noticing a lot of inverse snobbery. People who think it is simply overrated (which it probably is) and in no way proportionate to its ludicrous price. All true, really. However, for those of you who have experienced a garnish here or a dollop there and have enjoyed the experience, read on. I first had caviar in what was then the Soviet Union, when I was a student there in 1980. You could buy it with foreign currency (far too expensive for students in any case) from special shops known as beriozhkas. The other way of getting your hands on some was to “exchange” things for it from ladies in the hostel or hotel corridors and behind counters in department stores. This, you must understand, was before perestroika, and light years away from the Russia of Mr Putin and Russian millionaires roaming around Europe. I managed to lay my hands on a large tin (actually obscenely large, now that I think about it) from a dezhurnaya (a sort of concierge in Russian hotels). I can’t remember what I gave her in return but I have a feeling it was a piece of jewellery. Judging by the size of the tin, it must have been a nice piece of jewellery.
I brought it back to Paris, where I was studying (the Russian episode was a three-month stint) and invited about a dozen friends over for dinner. I served the caviar, chilled, straight out of the tin (I didn’t have any fancy caviar containers and mother-of-pearl spoons in those days—now that I have all the paraphernalia, I don’t have the caviar). To accompany it, I managed to find black bread from a Russian bakery, sour cream and Russian vodka, which I also served chilled. Nobody in their right minds would blemish caviar with that silly hard-boiled egg and smelly onion number. Certainly, the Russians and the French don’t indulge in such frivolities. That evening, one of my posher friends disappeared halfway through the dinner. The apartment wasn’t very large, and I found him quite soon in the kitchen, mischievously sitting in one corner licking the lid of the caviar tin and saying: “This is not something you waste, not even the few grains on the lid!”
Caviar is actually the eggs of fish—not just sturgeon, as most people think. It is processed and salted roe. The best varieties are beluga, oscietra and sevruga, which come from sturgeon of different sizes. Beluga is caviar with large dark-grey grains and a unique full-flavoured aftertaste. Sevruga is black grained caviar and is appreciated for its warm iodized taste. Oscietra is golden brown with a subtle nutty flavour. Every big caviar company, such as Caviar House, has its own blends and salting doses and techniques. I personally love Keta caviar, large orange eggs from the salmon which burst with sublimity when you press your tongue on them. Try to avoid jars of bright red and shiny black little eggs from lumpfish. They are inexpensive and their taste matches the price. All you will wind up with is fishy flavoured salt.
With the price of caviar nowadays, you may just want to use it as a garnish. Here is a very pure way of enjoying it in small doses.
Chilled Avocado Soup with Caviar
2 large ripe avocados, halved, seeded and peeled
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
3 tbsp lime juice
1 cup cold chicken stock
2 tbsp cream
Pinch of sugar
4 tsp caviar
Salt and pepper to season
Put avocados, garlic and lime juice into a mixer or food processor and puree until smooth. Add chicken stock and cream. Season with salt and pepper. Chill in the refrigerator. When you are ready to serve, divide into four glasses. Top with a teaspoon of caviar in each glass and serve at once.
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