In a couple of days it will be New Year's Eve when many of us will be quaffing large quantities of champagne. In my mind there is nothing that goes better with champagne than caviar (fish roe). I decided that I needed to get up-to-date on the state of the caviar industry, and so conducted a bit of research on the subject that I thought I would share with you, dear foodie.
Once upon a time when I was a lot younger than I am now, American sturgeon caviar was readily available and reasonably priced. At one time, caviar was so common in America it was served in saloons to encourage thirsty drinkers. A nickel could get you a serving of the best caviar available in New York, and many of the most lavish establishments, including the Waldorf Astoria, offered caviar as a free appetizer.Then the sturgeon were pretty much fished out and the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea took over the trade. Now Caspian sturgeon are becoming overfished, and the price of "legal" Caspian caviar now stands at $150/oz for Osetra, the least expensive type. I've been to Russia twice and you can buy black market caviar that fell off the back of a truck at a fraction of that price, but here at home, the stuff is terribly expensive.
There are three types of Caspian sturgeon: In order of rarity, they are Osetra ($150/oz), Sevruga ($175/oz) and Beluga (supposedly banned, but available at $200/oz). Some Russians are farming osetra in Siberia and are selling "Siberian Baeri Caviar" at a much lower price ($50/oz) than the Caspian stuff. In addition, some enterprising Israelis are raising Osetra sturgeon and selling its caviar called "Karat Caviar", also for around $50/oz. (All prices quoted are what it costs in the US.) Some pundits claim that Karat Caviar is Israel's latest weapon against Iran!
Re-enter the Americans. Eight different species of sturgeon are native to the United States, concentrated in the Mississippi river system, the Pacific Northwest and California. The largest of these varieties is the White Sturgeon which can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh upwards of a ton.
Domestic commercial caviar from farm-raised sturgeon is today centered in Tennessee, Illinois, Idaho and California. The primary species used for caviar is the Hackleback sturgeon which is indigenous to the Missouri/Mississippi river system. Although it is a small fish compared to the giant White sturgeon, it grows fast and produces caviar that is every bit the equal of Caspian osetra. Next in importance commercially is the Paddlefish, not strictly a sturgeon, but a close relative. Paddlefish caviar is comparable to Caspian sevruga. White Sturgeon caviar is produced in the Hageman Valley, Idaho and compares favorably with Caspian Beluga. The price for American sturgeon caviar ranges from about $12/oz for Paddlefish to $85/oz for premium grade Idaho White Sturgeon. The prices are bound to come down as more competitors enter the market.
If you love caviar, but don't want to spend that much, there are some very good caviars from other varieties of fish. Chief among these is Louisiana Bowfin caviar which can be had for $6 - $12/oz. Caviar from Salmon, Trout, Capelin, Whitefish and Lumpfish are available for prices in the $1 - $5/oz range
So how much caviar do you need? You can get about 20 1/4 Tsp servings out of an ounce of caviar. 1/4 Tsp is enough for a mini-canapé. However, a real aficionado is going to eat at least 1/2 oz all by himself!
My favorite way of serving caviar is to take a thin slice of cucumber, dollop a bit of sour cream or cremè fraiche on it, top with 1/4 - 1/2 Tsp of caviar and serve with minced shallots, chopped fresh dill and lemon wedges (for squeezing).
If you serve your caviar with utensils, use plastic or ceramic. Metal reacts with the caviar and imparts a metallic taste.
In short, if you serve up some caviar with the champagne, your New Year's Eve will indeed be a happy one.