Caviar! Caviar!! Caviar!!!
by Bill Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse
The Bailliage of Greater Washington, DC, welcomed the holiday season in grand Chaîne style with an evening focused exclusively on caviar and Champagne. Over thirty members and guests gathered on Zoom on November 18, 2020 as Petra Bergstein of The Caviar Company of San Francisco led the group on a fascinating and indulgent exploration of eight caviars.
The Caviar Co. shipped their delicacies overnight directly to participants, and the bailliage shipped a bottle of Champagne from its cellar, making this a geography-free event. Members, family, and friends in locations ranging from Florida to Washington state were thrilled to share a memorable evening in the best Chaîne tradition of “camaraderie of the (virtual) table.”
Bailli Judy Mazza opened the evening by warmly welcoming guests, along with new members of the bailliage who had joined during the pandemic. She gave special welcomes to Bertrand de Boutray, the Bailli Délégué des États-Unis (the Chaîne national president), who participated from his home in Seattle, and Cheryl Kenny, Bailli Provincial Southwest, who joined from Houston.
Petra’s experience in the industry began working for a caviar farm and a distributor. She and her sister, Saskia Bergstein, founded The Caviar Co. in 2015, becoming purveyors of the highest quality caviar, with sustainable sourcing central to their business. Petra’s expertise and passion for caviar was evident as she led a journey through eight caviars that was delicious, fun, and deeply informative about the history, rituals, and modern business of caviar.
Before the group opened the first caviar, Vice Échanson Ellen Kirsh introduced the Champagne she had selected for the evening – 2012 Le Mesnil Champagne Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs. This 100% chardonnay wine is produced exclusively from fruit from the grand cru vineyards in the heart of prestigious Côte des Blancs, just south of the famed Champagne commune of Épernay. Ellen noted that this superb vintage easily stands on its own but with delicacy and nuance that would not overwhelm the caviar.
With flutes filled, it was almost time to experience the caviar. Petra began with a quick lesson on tasting. The most traditional way is to place the caviar on the back of the hand using a mother-of-pearl (or other non-metallic) spoon, as metal can taint the flavor. One can then closely examine the caviar, looking for a uniform egg size – a portion of caviar should be from one fish, even if it is the same species. Texture is central to enjoying caviar, so one should break the eggs with the tongue on the roof of the mouth rather than chewing with the teeth. Petra shared the history of accompaniments to caviar, which was first shipped from Russia to Paris before the advent of cool transportation. Strong accompaniments – capers, onions, lemon, etc. – were needed to mask the spoiled caviar and, while traditional, today will overwhelm good caviar. She also explained that the tradition of chopped egg originated (and persists) as a way to “bulk up” a small quantity of caviar. For this evening, at least, there was no need for that!
The tasting proceeded with pairs of caviar. First was Hackleback and Paddlefish. The Hackleback is one of the last wild caviars available and is from one of the smallest species of sturgeon, growing to around 18 inches. The fish is common in the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers, as far north as Illinois. The species matures to egg-producing age in just two to five years, so stocks are healthy. These sturgeon feed on mollusks on the river-bottom, a diet expressed in the mild flavor, good minerality, and earthiness of small, jet-black eggs – much as a wine reflects its terroir. This was an interesting contrast to the Paddlefish caviar, which is also wild from the Tennessee River. Despite coming from the same area and with a similar diet, the Paddlefish eggs are a platinum gray with a distinctly different flavor that evokes earth, mushroom, and talc. Petra suggested that fingerling potatoes and crème fraîche to accompany these flavors.
Next were Classic White and Royal White Sturgeon, two caviars from the same fish. The white sturgeon is one of the largest species, growing to up to 250 pounds at harvest, 20 percent of which can be eggs. It is native to the west coast of the U.S., including San Francisco Bay. For these caviars, the fish are farm-raised near Sacramento, California. While both the Classic White and Royal White share a creamy and buttery flavor, the difference is in the grade of the caviar, specifically the size, texture, and color of the eggs. The Caspian Sea, the home of caviar, is dark, deep, and cold and that temperature and water pressure are key to the outstanding quality of Caspian caviar. Those conditions are a challenge to recreate at farms, so the Royal variant is harvested from is from older fish, which gives itbetter texture along with a higher fat content for even more richness. For tasting these two White Sturgeons, Petra suggested a slice of cucumber for bite and a bit of chive, along with crème fraîche to balance the salt.
Next up were a pair that exemplified some of the best flavor and texture of caviar. Siberian Sturgeon is native to France and is one of the most frequently farmed species. The evening’s caviar was farmed in Poland, but it is also raised in Italy, France, and numerous other countries. (The Caviar Company just received a sample of Siberian Sturgeon caviar from Madagascar.) This is caviar has an amazing nutty flavor with umami that evokes parmesan cheese, but it is not known for its texture. It was a rather “wet” caviar, with a high amount of oil and eggs that break down a bit faster than other varieties. In contrast was the Kaluga Hybrid caviar. Petra explained that this species is a river sturgeon that is native to China and is a cousin of the famed Caspian beluga. The Kaluga Hybrid is farmed in nets in lakes, allowing the fish to swim deep. That water pressure results in a caviar that is not at all oily and with eggs that are a showcase for texture. With a flavor that begins earthy on the tip of the tongue and then reveals nutty, creamy, and buttery elements, Petra explained that this is what wild caviar used to be like, making it a favorite with chefs and among her staff.
The final pair of caviar – Russian Osetra and Imperial Golden Russian Osetra – are from the same species fish with lineage from the Caspian, but with distinctly different color caviar. The Russian Osetra is from 18-year-old fish and features amber colored eggs. The evening’s sample – one of Petra’s favorites – is farmed in Israel, but it is also raised across Europe. The Imperial Golden is from 20-year-old fish whose maturity results in golden caviar. This lighter coloring is rare and thus more valuable. Both caviars are superb – meaty and rich with great fat content and nice texture.
As participants continued to sip Champagne, Petra answered numerous questions, and shared insight into famed Russian caviar: Sevruga is no longer available and wild Beluga is now banned. There are efforts to farm Beluga, but the product is not ready as the fish need to age further. As for true Caspian caviar, dams constructed on the rivers flowing into the sea to power industry cut off the sturgeon’s spawning areas, reducing the stock to levels unsustainable for commercial harvesting. For health reasons, caviar exported from Russia is now pasteurized, which, while extending its shelf life, diminishes its texture and flavor. All the caviars from The Caviar Company are unpasteurized and contain only the eggs and salt (thus the need for them to be properly refrigerated and consumed promptly).
Bailli Judy Mazza spoke for everyone in thanking Petra for leading the gathering through wonderful evening that was not only delicious but also entertaining and educational. Judy noted that the idea for a caviar evening came from members at one of bailliage’s first on-line events, and she encouraged members to continue to share ideas for future virtual gatherings.