Nothing says First Class like Caviar Service. Of course, it’s even better with world-class, vintage Champagne or ice cold, quality Vodka. And it’s absolutely the best when it gets served to you while sitting in an ultra comfortable seat in your own private space at 35,000 feet. It’s also the defacto picture posted by frequent flyers and travel hackers everywhere, when they stake their claim atop Mt. Luxury Traveler. That’s where it begins and ends for many people. “I’m sitting in First Class. They have Caviar. They have champagne. I’m going to have some and post a picture of it.”
We’re going to go a little deeper than that. All alcoholic, grape-based beverages with bubbles are not created equal. Heck, they’re often not even actually champagne (e.g. – Cava, Sparkling Wine, Brachetto,etc.). The same thing applies to Caviar. Just because it’s an egg that came out of a fish, it’s certainly not Caviar.
Let’s Talk About Caviar
A while back, before every trademark and brand name in the universe got co-opted to help sell products that were somewhat or slightly similar to the original, Caviar meant one specific thing. It meant the unfertilized roe of wild Sturgeon fish that are found exclusively in the Black or the Caspian Sea. Period. If any of those elements are not true and present, it just is not Caviar. The most popular and well-known brands/types of caviar are Beluga, Ossetra and Sevruga. Those names come directly from the variety of Sturgeon from which the eggs are harvested.
Well Known Sturgeon, Well Known Caviar
- Beluga – Beluga is derived from the Russian word for “white”. This type of Sturgeon is the largest freshwater fish in the world. They can weigh up to 3,000 pounds and live more than 100 years. Due to over-fishing and over-harvesting the Russian government implemented a complete prohibition against caviar harvesting to allow the Beluga to repopulate. This had to happen since Caviar is the unfertilized eggs and harvesting too many eggs does not allow the Sturgeon population to thrive. Typical Beluga nowadays are in the 150 – 250 pound range. It can take 20 years for a sturgeon to mature and produce eggs fit for breeding or consumption. These Beluga eggs when harvested, offer a very large grain Caviar varying in color from light to dark gray and sometimes almost black. Traditionally, Beluga Caviar is graded by the size and color using zeros hand marked upon the tin to best identify the contents. A “000” marking refers to the lightest color and the largest size eggs. A “0” grading refers to the darkest in color and smallest eggs. The rarest harvest, is that of the “000” designation. (source: CaviarRusse.com)
- Ossetra – Ossetra’s name is derived from the Russian word for “sturgeon”. They are not as big as the Beluga, ranging from 50 – 400 pounds. While not as long-lived as Beluga, the Ossetra can live for 50 years. Ossetra Caviar varies in color, from deep brown to gold. Lighter varieties are more sought after, as they have the richest flavor and come from the oldest of sturgeon. Golden Ossetra is a rare form of Ossetra Caviar, and is golden-yellow in color with a very rich flavor.
- Sevruga – Sevruga is the “baby” of the Caspian/Black Sea sturgeon. It is the most plentiful of the three and is the most readily available type of true Caviar.
The word “Malossol” is often found on the packaging. That means it is lightly salted to enhance the flavor. That’s pretty straightforward, right? If you really want to dig into history of Sturgeon, Caviar and production, the United Nations Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture has an enormous amount of information on the subject.
And Now For “Caviar”
As Caviar grew in popularity purveyors needed more sources to keep up with demand. In the United Kingdom, their love of caviar dates back to 1324. The British Royal family went so far as declaring Sturgeon as the Royal Fish. There is only one purveyor of caviar that is recognized by the Queen, Exmoor Caviar.
In the United States and Canada, they harvested roe from the lake sturgeon in the North American midwest and from the Shortnose sturgeon and the Atlantic sturgeon spawning in the rivers of the Eastern coast of the United States. Depletion is also a factor with the Shortnose sturgeon designated as a “vulnerable” species.
Worldwide shortages and depletion gave rise to farmed caviar. Various sturgeon species are raised in captivity and their eggs/roe is harvested humanely with careful attention paid to allowing enough eggs to be fertilized so female sturgeon continue to thrive. Farmed / Sustainable Caviar is now a common practice across North America, Iran, Italy, Uruguay, Israel, China and other countries. However, none of these caviars are true “Caviars” and cannot truthfully be labeled as Beluga, Ossetra, or Sevruga.
Salmon roe, Squid roe and Uni (Sea Urchin roe) are other caviar-like products that have their own distinctive tastes and service methods.
There is some ritual associated with the plating and service of Caviar. There are culinary and taste reasons for this preparation, and others that are more ceremony than substance.
The traditional Caviar service starts with a generous serving of Caviar itself. Portion size should be at least 20 grams. Good Caviar can be consumed on its own. No sides are necessary and they can actually mask the wonderful flavor of the Caviar (i.e. – that chopped onion). What does good Caviar taste like? It should taste like the sea itself: briny. A bit like fresh fish, a bit like the freshest of oysters. It should have a mouth feel this is the slightest bit crisp; like tiny balloons that melt or pop releasing that taste of the sea.
The normal sides are blini, sour cream, egg whites, egg yolks and sometimes boiled potatoes. They work best as palate cleansers or neutral tasting “spacers” that go in between each savory bite. You will often see mother of pearl utensils used to serve and eat Caviar. They are neutral in composition (like the sides) and impart no taste to the Caviar. Silver utensils should be avoided completely as they will interact and modify the taste.
On the beverage side of Caviar Service, champagne is usually the number one choice. Like the sides, the Champagne should be light and crisp so it compliments rather than competes with the Caviar. Shots of ice-cold Vodka are a more Russian tradition, but it’s best to save those for the finish as high proof spirits can ruin your taste buds for subsequent servings of Caviar.
Coming in Part 2:
We’ll look into Caviar Service on the most popular airlines. We’ll compare brands, servings, side and beverages and, if possible, crown a winner. Here’s a little teaser from Cathay Pacific.