Sexy food to share with your Valentine #9: Caviar

Thousands of beady little eyes stared back at me.  Entranced, I started back.

My first introduction to caviar was memorable and a little intimidating. In a luxe restaurant as quiet as a library with heavy damask curtains, I was at an extremely high-end brunch. In front of me was the much revered caviar I’d heard about the light shone on the lustrous orbs from different directions and each jet black egg took on an ephemeral sheen; to me it looked like a kaleidoscope.  Both cosmopolitan and virginal the lush mounds were incongruous.  I was bewitched.

I was woken from my spell by the “competitive brunch eaters” (you know who I mean) lunging and lurching across me, over me, around me for the great brunch prize. “Forget the passe’ shrimp, never mind the lackluster crab legs! Get out of my way!” The ambitious brunch climbers stared and huffed at me. I could not have even a moment’s intimacy with this brunch starlet.  Looking around, I noticed that people were heaping piles of caviar onto their plates, as if it were egg salad. Even then, I was embarrassed by the vulgarity of it all. It was the ’80’s though, so in retrospect, compared to all those shoulder pads, this probably didn’t seem like such a sin.

Reaching for the small pearl spoon, I wondered what exactly made this black gold so precious. I didn’t know that caviar comes exclusively from the Jurassic sized Sturgeon fish. Just as there is no Champagne from anywhere but France there is no caviar from any other fish. Everything else must be qualified by the fish its harvested from (i.e.: salmon caviar), at least that’s the labeling requirement in both the USA and France. I put a small dot on a piece of toast and left the pandemonium behind.  Safety ensconced at my table, I tentatively raised the small piece of toast to my lips and gingerly bit. I sighed with disappointment. The dreary, slightly soggy toast, singularly designed to not interfere with the essence of the caviar’s wonder failed miserably. I wanted to feel the “POP” of each egg on the roof of my mouth; I wanted each salty explosion without “savorous interruptus” of toast. Blech. I wanted to taste caviar uninhibited by toast.

I thought carefully about my next steps. I knew I wanted more. I also knew, it would be a Frodo Bagginesque journey for the eggs that rules them all. For this small piece of perfection, I was willing to brave the throngs of people with more money than class. My risks were rewarded with another serving, this time without the bothersome toast.

“The great caviar riot of 1988″  was the beginning, but not the end of a lifelong love of caviar and roe. Caviar being fish eggs harvested from the fish before fertilization, and roe qualified as fertilized fish eggs and harvested outside of the fish. Although its rare for me to have actual caviar in any real quantity besides a garnish, it remains still, a favored savored friend. Sexy for its elusiveness and elegance, a purported aphrodisiac (due to its zinc content), luxurious for its varied sensations during noshing, its the ultimate Valentine’s Day treat.

the Caspian Sea

Caviar’s pedigree and history

Caviar is a study in contradictions. The sturgeon itself is a salt-water fish who breeds in the brackish estuaries of the Caspian Sea and although Russian caviar receives the greatest acclaim, caviar’s provenance is actually more tangled.  Finally, although the sturgeon is not an unusual fish – nor is it a young one, having survived over 200 million years – for over 200 years, the fish has been on the brink of extinction.

Caviar originated during the times of the Persian empire, as a meal for the wealthy. But in Russia, caviar was only popularized as recently as the 13th century when the Russian Orthodox Church authorized it as an acceptable meal for the poor living along the Caspian Sea. Simultaneous to this, the Mongol descendants of Ghangis Kahn realized that this dish of simple origins had some inherent value and began exporting it through the ports of Italy. The Romans so highly valued caviar that one jar cost 100 sheep.  By the 15th century, caviar as a dish was as trendy as those shoulder pads were in the (19)80’s. And, just like those shoulder pads in the (19)80’s not everyone was an immediate fan of caviar. In the 17th century, King Louis XV has a minor hissy fit about caviar and expressed his displeasure when he spat his small taste out on the carpets of the Versailles. Caviar, however, soon resumed its rightful place as a feast for kings, the wealthy and even those with more money than common sense, our competitive brunch eaters.

When the Czars of Russia defeated the Mongols, they secured the loyalty of fisherman and pirates along the Caspian Sea by granting them exclusive rights to fish for Sturgeon. Caviar became a more common export, but it still remained a rarity.  Around the world, countries began fishing their own waters for the common Sturgeon fish.

Apparently, the aforementioned competitive brunch eaters have a long pedigree. The overindulgence of caviar has lead the demise of this fantastic fish; practically every place where Sturgeon were harvested for their prized eggs, they were fished to extinction. This happened in the USA in the 19th century (when it was the largest producer of caviar) and in the 20th century in both France (where at one point, it was so abundant it was as cheap as bread) and Germany. Today, caviar from the Caspian Sea is no longer available from Russian sources (due to a self imposed ban) and comes largely from Iran, making Caspian Sea caviar the most unusual, but still the most highly prized.  Today, most caviar available today is largely “American made”,  and farm raised.

Caviar’s delicate flavors, fascinating saga and expense make it a truly romantic treat to share your Valentine. I suggest doing it at home, though to avoid the competitive brunch bunch.

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About Tara DeWitt Coomans

An aspiring cook and an accomplished eater, Tara is inspired by the world around her and the food on her plate. "When you can't jump on a plane and take a vacation to an exotic destination, chances are you can whip up a dish or go to a restaurant that will take you there." says Tara. She often eats out at a restaurant after trying to accomplish a given dish at home. None the less, she enjoys food and what it says about the human experience. Tara is a full-time freelance writer and blogger. She specializes in writing about food, cooking and travel. You can find her in the kitchen, on the plane or at her computer.