I had an odd conversation with my mother the other day. We were talking about my father's third volume of memoirs (not published, a purely personal project of his) and my mother commented, "We were rich!"
"Rich?!" That's not what I recall. Sure, we were comfortably middle-class, and, with two well-educated working parents in the 1950s and 60s, probably upper middle class. But I still remember my mother borrowing back the allowance she'd just given me in order to buy groceries for supper that night. And that allowance? I had to pull weeds, dig post holes for fences, split firewood, and generally work far more energetically than I ever had any mind to in order to earn it. I didn't grow up lacking anything, but I didn't grow up vacationing on the French Riviera either - I think we went to Cape Hatteras three times, once in January - and it snowed.
I don't know how old I was when I first tasted "caviar", perhaps 9 or 10 - and it wasn't real caviar. It wasn't Beluga, Sevruga or even Osetra from the Caspian Sea. It was lumpfish roe, dyed black and salted. I don't recall if I liked it, but my guess is not. Nevertheless, this ersatz caviar became a regular canapé (on a cracker with cream cheese and a thin slice of lemon) at our family's holiday gatherings - along with the California sparkling wine.
With Christmas on the way, I've been wanting to try some high quality domestic caviar and when I learned about Collins Caviar I figured this was my chance. I picked up the phone, called, and got the owner, Rachel Collins. I didn't have an expense account, she offered to give me the caviar if I paid the shipping costs (which came to $51), I agreed. Wednesday afternoon my parents joined me for a tasting.
Now, good caviar - regardless of source - should taste distinctly of fish but should do so in the way a breeze off the ocean smells of fish. Not overwhelming, just clear. It should be salty, but again, not overwhelmingly so. Think salt spray on your lips. And the "berries" should burst in your mouth (it's a textural thing), which is why Beluga's large eggs are so famed.
I had Collins decide what to send me and she chose salmon, whitefish, and hackleback sturgeon roes. She also has paddlefish roe as well as some specialty products such as smoked salmon row and what they call a Caviar Margarita flavored with tequila. I tried a small spoonful of each before my parents arrived and liked the salmon best. When they got here I sliced a baguette very thin and offered the bread with a small round of excellent domestic chèvre thinking it's tartness would complement the caviar. My parents contributed a bottle of Domaine St. Michele sparkling wine.
All were lightly salted allowing the flavor of the eggs to shine. This is very different from the stuff you get at most grocery stores, which is over-salted and pasteurized to make it shelf stable. In each case the eggs were perfectly whole - very well cared for during processing and another mark of good caviar.
The Great Lakes Chinook salmon caviar was our unanimous favorite. It had a gorgeous salmon color and the eggs were large (Beluga-sized) and burst perfectly between the teeth - an important textural aspect of caviar. It also had the most distinctive flavor: I could have easily eaten 4 or 5 ounces of it all by myself - and at only $18/ounce that's not a far-fetched idea. In fact, given shipping charges, the more you order the cheaper the price.
Our least favorite was the whitefish caviar. It was almost flavorless with eggs the size of pinheads and even at $10/ounce I wouldn't order it again. I wish she'd included the paddlefish caviar (paddlefish is a close relative of sturgeon), but beggars can't be choosers.
The sturgeon (hackleback) was a surprise. It's the most expensive of the lot at $48/ounce and the taste I ate plain wasn't impressive. Nor are the eggs impressive, also the size of pinheads. As with the whitefish roe this means getting the full flavor is mitigated because many eggs simply aren't broken when chewing due to their size. But I found that using a heaping spoonful made a difference. The flavor is light and supple and really stood out against the tartness of the chèvre.
I would love to do a side-by-side comparison of domestic and imported caviars, but that's an unlikely event and really isn't my point here. What I wanted to know is if premium domestic caviars, a wild food-stuff that is managed to at least some degree and that doesn't require shipping from 6000 miles away was a reasonable alternative to $300/ounce beluga. My conclusion was: absolutely!
The hackleback and salmon roe were excellent with an edge to the salmon because of the large eggs (and lower price). If you have a foodie on your Christmas list - or are trying to decide on an hors d'oeuvre before Christmas dinner - domestic caviar is a great option. Even the domestic stuff isn't really cheap, but at least you're supporting a nice lady in Indiana instead of a member of the Russian mafia.
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