The conversation while sipping on Beluga Gold vodka coupled with the nutty pop of farm-raised White Sturgeon in the soviet-inspired surrounds of Pravda in New York naturally revolved around caviar. Traditionally caviar refers only to the roe from species of sturgeons such as beluga, sevruga and ossetrain found in the Caspian and Black Sea. They are known to produce the finest varieties of caviar. Today people use the word loosely to describe the roe of other fishes like lumpfish, salmon, trout, whitefish and bowfin.
The reduced sturgeon population in North America combined with the bans on fishing and export of caviar to conserve endangered fish supplies since the 1960s have kept caviar prices high. Despite the eyebrow raising prices, the love for the processed and salted fish roe in the US continues with increasing use in high-end dining establishments and growing popularity of caviar boutiques and bars. Someone actually introduced a national caviar day on 18 July to honour this delicacy. Even during the global financial crisis, the wholesale prices remained stable at an average of 1,000 euros a kilogram for most sturgeon varieties. The luxurious glossy and salty pearls are no longer served on small spoons by white-gloved waiters. Instead chefs are adding the gourmet ingredient to accentuate familiar dishes like pasta, burgers and tacos in the US.
We wondered if caviar was equally popular in Australia, where cities like Melbourne and Sydney are home to top chefs and a growing population of gastronomes. With no expert around our table to provide any insight, I decided to seek out friend and Australian specialty gourmet food importer Henrietta Morgan.
Henrietta Morgan / Photo courtesy of The Good Grub Hub
Henrietta is the owner of The Good Grub Hub which boasts an enviable client list of top hatted restaurants and high-end caterers in the country. Her company specialises in difficult-to-import food products including the Bowfin and Golden Whitefish caviar from the US.
Henrietta shared that after a few unfashionable years of association with the wealthy, the caviar is back with a vengeance on the best menus in Australia. The fact that this nutritious food of love has few calories and a host of healthy vitamins, fats and amino acids also helped.
With the increasing range of caviar at various prices available in the Australian market, how do you know which tasty fish roe to choose? To help you get started on your appreciation journey, here's our simple guide to the types of caviar available locally.
Sturgeon Caviar is a delicacy consisting of salt-cured fish eggs of the Acipenseridae (Sturgeon) family, a prehistoric fish variety found in the Caspian and Black seas. All good caviars are Malossol which means preserved with minimum salt.
Royal Belgian Caviar Osietra / Photo courtesy of Joosen-Luyckx Aqua Bio Ltd
Sturgeons produce a lovely creamy roe with a distinct flavour. The most prized caviar is from the beluga sturgeon. Other popular varieties include the osetra and sevruga. Overfishing and pollution have dramatically reduced the population of wild sturgeon fish in the Caspian Sea. The wild population in the lower Volga river region have nearly disappeared. The worldwide bans on fishing wild sturgeon and embargoes on Russian caviar combined with the steady global demand for caviar have encouraged aquaculture. Now most Sturgeon caviar eaten is farmed.
This availability of quality farmed caviar have boosted demand in Australia since 2008 with providores like Friend & Burrell and David Jones Foodhall stocking up. Sturgeon caviar is often consumed on its own, straight from the tin to really savour its flavour. A tiny 30 grams sells for approximately $150 dollars or more.
You can buy this roe in almost any supermarket in Australia for around $6.10 per 50 grams. The lumpfish offers a plentiful and cheap source of roe for the mass market who are awed by the stellar prices of sturgeon caviar. Apart from the affordable price, the burst of salty flavours from the eggs are commonly used as accompaniment to various canapes and appetizers. However most of the roe sold commercially is dyed red or black and may leave stains on food.
Smoked Ocean Trout & Avruga Caviar / Photo from Yun Huang Yong of Flickr
Avruga caviar is derived from herring roe fished from the waters off the coast of Spain. It achieves the look of a strugeon caviar product without the intense fishy flavour and high prices. It retails at approximately $36 for 120 grams. The roe is pearlescent black with a mild smoky flavour that is often enjoyed with blinis, toasted bread and chopped eggs. However this caviar substitute is actually a a mixture of herring with water, salt, corn starch, lemon juice, citric acid, xanthan gum, sodium benzoate and squid ink.
Bowfin Caviar / Photo courtesy of The Good Grub Hub
Unlike the Avruga caviar, the Bowfin (Alma calva) offers a natural alternative to the sturgeon caviar at a fraction of the cost. The small and naturally black firm egg with subtle brine notes serves as a wonderful complement to appetisers and entrees. The wild Bowfin is the last surviving member of the order Amiiformes dating from the Jurassic. It inhabits the waters of Southern USA states like Louisiana. Wild caught, the roe from this fish is sustainable and catch heavily regulated by the USA Government. It is available from The Good Grub Hub at $60 for 113 grams.
Salmon and Trout Caviar
Photo courtesy of Buxton Trout and Salmon Farm
These large and glistening orange-red berries common in canapes and Japanese cuisine are most familiar to locals. They are enjoyed for their pop of light salty and fishy flavours with a tinge of oil. Usually eaten cold and plain to savour the natural flavours of the roe, it has also become popular as garnish on canapes.
Top quality salmon and trout roe should be whole, crisp and lightly salted like that of Buxton Trout and Salmon Farm. However, inferior and cheaper versions are now available. They are soft, greasy or crushed. There are also late stage roes that have a harder protective coat as they are formed ready to be laid by the fish. All roes produced in Australia are farmed. 100 grams usually retails for $36 in supermarkets and even deli section of markets like Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne.
Golden Whitefish Caviar
Golden whitefish surrounded by extra large salmon caviar / Photo courtesy of The Good Food & Wine Show
A less fishy alternative to Salmon caviar is the freshwater Golden Whitefish caviar available from The Good Grub Hub. It is a delicious roe harvested from wild whitefish that populate pristine alpine freshwater lakes in Northern USA. The individual eggs are a golden hue and the mouth feel is a mellow and clean flavour with a very satisfying pop.
Apart from the affordability at $55 for 113 grams, the natural roe is also very versatile and can be incorporated into vinaigrettes, sauces, mousses, mayonnaise and dips. It can also be infused with smoke, citron and truffle to add new flavour dimensions to canapes.