Simon serves us well
Simon Johnson is by far the largest caviar importer into Australia bringing in 1.8 tons last year. They deal directly with the producers, not through traders. They have exclusive contracts to three of the largest producers and are also the only licensed repacker of caviar and that is really important. Their main markets are the airlines, Qantas, Emirates and Qatar, and the best restaurants and hotels across the country.
Obviously, the growing and harvesting are worlds apart but in the tasting and enjoyment, there are a number of parallels with fine wine and caviar.
The big blue and gold cans (1kg and 1.8kg) arriving in Australia for repackaging are called the Mother Tins and referred to as caviar’s wine barrels by the Simon Johnson people. They are stamped with the word malossol which is Russian for low content of salt, 4% at most. Producers regularly phone Lisa and Kasia to ask how much they want. The Mother Tins arrive straight into the country just weeks after harvest. The grains inside gradually absorb just the right amount of the salt. Maturation could take 6 weeks to three months.
When ready, according to an optimum timeframe provided by the producers, they are then ‘decanted’.
In the caviar room, which is like a surgical theatre kept at minus 6 degrees, the precious grains are carefully spooned into one of 150 different smaller packages. Their stock is always fresh for their local customers not prepacked on the other side of the world.
We have four small tins in front of us. We have a small golden key to open them. We do that. And take note of the different appearance of the contents. Kasia brings up the wine comparison again, suggesting each variety of pearl could be compared to the different varieties of grapes. Each has its own size, colour variations and appearance and unique flavour. Where they are farmed and how they are treated give detectable variations, just as there are in wines handled by different winemakers from the same grape variety.
We start with the Black Pearl Siberian Oscietra produced in the crystal-clear waters of Goslawice Farm’s lake in north eastern Poland. We start there because the flavour is judged more subtle compared to those following.
The spoons are mother of pearl as metal can change the taste of these delicate eggs. We spoon it onto the back of the hand between the thumb and forefinger. There are two traditional reasons for this. One, caviar must be stored chilled for freshness but as it contains over 70% fat, it releases its expensive and expansive aroma and flavour at body heat. Two, enlisting the hand of potential customers a merchant could offer tastings needing only one spoon.
On our hand, we can feel the cold. We chat until we can’t feel the cold. We are warmed and ready. We raise the hand to the mouth. The eggs are gently licked so the perfect pile of pleasure sits on the tongue. Patience.
Breathe in. Savour the first swirls of aroma. Raise the tongue slowly, press the delicate cargo to the roof of the mouth. Gentle bursting releases the flavours. (Not a pop! Only pasteurized caviar has a pop.) This is a soft melt. Aaahhh. This is what you have paid for.
We agree there is a very subtle fishiness but a sweetly salty spread of flavours across the tongue. Beautifully pure, correct but not overly dramatic.
A wine comparison? Chablis or Sancerre perhaps.
Cleanse the palate with chilled vodka ready for the next.
We moved one tin across to the Calvicius Oscietra. This one is produced from the Russian Sturgeon in the alpine far north of Italy on the Ars Italica farm founded in the 1970s. One of the oldest and most experienced producers they have the biggest production in Europe. A beautiful melt and a rich flavour. Rich is right. Nutty, almost buttery. Presents with less saltiness although it could well be the same as the first one at just 4%. The flavour runs out like a warm buttery liquid. As a wine, this could also be a chardonnay but more intense, let’s say an Alsace pinot gris.
Next the Sterling Farms White Sturgeon. This is produced in the USA from a species native to the north western American coast. Stolt Sea Farm in Sacramento hatches its own baby sturgeon then grows them to about three years of age when they are 20-25 pounds. At this point they are checked with ultrasound to identify the fish to be kept for another 5 -10 years to produce caviar.
The taste is modern, brighter and lighter, almost hinting of citrus amongst the tingle of brininess. “A little bit sharper, sometimes a little bit earthy,” says Kasia. Wine? A premium Hunter semillon perhaps.
The last one is the Beluga which comes from the long-lived Huso Huso species. This is the largest of all sturgeon roes each grain 3.2 to 3.6 mm in diameter. It is soft grey with a stellar shine. Even Kasia who has seen It many times is moved to say. “Isn’t the size of the pearls amazing!” We feel the size against the roof of the mouth then whoosh. An explosion rich and regal. Noble even.
Kasia suggests we squeeze a single pearl on the back of the hand. It opens softly to show a rich thick cream. This is what surprises and excites the palate. This is the caviar that is served in 21 out of 26 three-star Michelins in France. As a wine, this is beautifully aged Montrachet.
Expensive but good for you
Those Persians way back were very clever calling it khavar the egg of strength, because the chemical profile of these shiny little eggs shows that ounce for ounce they have the highest nutrition of any protein.
They have 45 vitamins and minerals also some important amino acids including one that helps your blood vessels relax, improving your blood flow allowing you to pick up more oxygen.
“So it no surprise that you feel better very soon after you first spoonful of caviar,” says Lisa. “Mongol warriors used to eat it before battles to give them strength.”
Some hints for home consumption
Even in its richest varieties, caviar is still a delicacy. You shouldn’t overwhelm its flavours.
Never serve it with onion. This was once used by less than scrupulous traders to mask the taste of caviars past their best.
A tiny snip of chives might be acceptable. The colour contrast is pretty too.
Never squeeze lemon juice. It is far too assertive.
Boiled or scrambled eggs are fine. As are blinis with a dollop of crème fraiche. Or plain white bread. With a smear of cultured butter.
Kasia’s favourite is potatoes. Mashed or thinly sliced and boiled.
Oysters are another favourite pairing. Sisters from the sea.
To drink? Chilled vodka of course and champagne.
Your caviar should arrive in front of you chilled, but you will find if you can resist for a few minutes, the warmer it gets the more regal flavours it will present to you.