Aristotle wrote of heaping platters of caviar served to the blare of trumpets. Russian soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars spread the virtues of vodka. Together they are the perfect marriage of two of life’s great luxuries.
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Caviar served atop a floral ice ring.
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Poor man’s asparagus.
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Fettuccine with smoked salmon and salmon caviar.
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Oyster and caviar canapes.
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Experts recommend pairing caviar with high-end vodkas such as Van Gogh or Belvedere for optimum effect.
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I had one day left to live, I’d buy a dozen tins of high-grade caviar, ice down some vodka, and have a few friends over for the most indulgent hours of our collective lives. Such a splash would cost a few thousand dollars, but with only hours left to spend whatever is left in the bank account, how better to cash out?
Vodka and caviar go together like love and the first few years of marriage. The vodka preps the palate but doesn’t interfere with the flavor of the caviar. And the caviar delights it with beads that pop to reveal a nutty, slightly salty flavor.
“Vodka and caviar, it’s a party in your mouth,” says Michel Emery, director of sales for Paris-based Petrossian, the world’s largest and, at 90-plus years, the most longstanding distributor of caviar. “You taste the caviar, then a sip of vodka cleanses the palate for the next taste of caviar.”
Jennifer Knowles, wine director at The Inn at Little Washington, a Forbes five star and AAA five diamond-ranked hotel and restaurant, which sells more than a kilogram of caviar a week both as stand-alone service and in various dishes in the restaurant, says vodka pairs well with caviar because its clean and pure flavors “pierce the salinity of the caviar but also allow the natural flavor to shine through.”
Surprisingly, with caviar, the best isn’t necessarily the costliest. Ask 10 different chefs what their favorite caviar is, and you’ll get almost as many answers. “It’s a very personal thing,” says Emery. “The best thing to do is to find a species [of fish] you like. It’s not a question of how much to spend but how much your palate likes it.”
Vodka, too, is a subjective pursuit. But good vodka should meet a few standard criteria. “It should have unique and interesting characteristics,” says Jonathan Pogash of TheCocktailGuru.com and in-house mixologist for NBC’s “Weekend Today in New York.” Once you’ve done some tasting, Pogash says, you’ll be able to discern the right properties, including “some spice notes, like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, and savory spices like peppers, which you get after tasting a bit and getting your palate used to everything that goes on.” Follow a straight shot with some caviar, and you’ll taste why this combination is an enduring worldwide pleaser.
Quest for the Best
When it comes to caviar, forget everything you thought you knew. Beluga caviar might still be thought of as the best, but short of traveling to Russia and mugging a poacher, we’ll never know. Russia has banned trade of caviar from wild sturgeon. And importation of Beluga caviar—whether by hand or by mail—into America was declared illegal by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2005. (The Beluga sturgeon is protected as an endangered species.) And don’t think highly prized Iranian caviar, once fished from the Caspian Sea, will provide any comfort. The Obama administration embargoed all imports from Iran in September 2010. Of course, you can always turn to the black market, easiest to find online, but Emery sniffs at the thought: “Either it’s not Beluga and they’re selling it as Beluga, or it’s Beluga that’s fished illegally from the Caspian Sea,” he says. Either way, we shouldn’t be ordering Beluga.
Petrossian buys its Ossetra, the next rung down on the caviar hierarchy (from the Ossetra sturgeon), from farms around the world. But best not cultivate a taste for Sevruga (from the Sevruga sturgeon), the less expensive high-grade caviar. “There has been no Sevruga for a long time,” says Emery. “It hasn’t been farm-raised yet.”
If you want to replicate the Beluga experience, Emery recommends Khaluga caviar, which originates in China. So what can you expect at $194 for 1.06 ounces? “A light flavor, large beads, and a buttery taste, almost like an egg yolk,” explains Emery.
Great vodka is easier to separate from the chaff. “Look for the initial mouth feel, which will be either sweet or bitter,” says Pogash. If it’s sweet, pass. It means other flavors have been added to the spirits. “I want the chill to hit my tongue and savory notes to come forward,” he says, “with maybe a little sweetness when it hits the back of the tongue and the throat.” He cites either Belvedere or Dutch import Van Gogh as a purist’s choice. And to beat the inevitable alcohol burn? “Take a second sip,” says Pogash, who adds that when tasting spirits and wine, “you have to take more than one sip to experience it.”
Setting the Stage
Caviar presentation isn’t the production you might think. People who know caviar prefer the classic service on bland toast points with a little butter, blini, or even potato slices, perhaps with a light topper of crème fraîche. This allows the flavor of the roe to take center stage.
If you are serving caviar by the spoon, Emery recommends three to five grams “for a nice dollop.” As an appetizer with blini or toast points, expect to serve 30 grams per person or, as a main course, up to 100 grams per person. A main course offering, he says, should have different types of caviar “to compare flavors and textures.”
And the spoon? This is very important: only wood, mother of pearl, horn or other non-metallic substances. Ironically, even though caviar comes in tins, a metal spoon turns the flavor of the delicate roe into something unworthy.
Lastly, make tasting the caviar and vodka the main event. You could dress up presentation with a hand-painted bottle of Jewel of Russia Ultra vodka, but don’t let the caviar sit indefinitely on a cocktail buffet. “Putting it on ice can work if you’re going to leave it on the table for an hour or a half hour,” says Emery. “If it isn’t chilled, you should eat it within a half-hour.”
That shouldn’t be a problem.
1¼ cups milk
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Combine dry ingredients. In a blender, mix eggs, milk and olive oil. Slowly add dry ingredients. In a non-stick skillet over medium heat, pour batter into half-dollar size circles. Cook until bubbles form around edges, then flip. Cook for another minute to minute-and-a-half. Remove from pan. Cool before serving. Makes 2-3 dozen blini.
Poor Man's Asparagus
1 hard-boiled egg
1 generous spoonful caviar
1 tablespoon vinaigrette
Trim leek’s root end and all but an inch of dark leaves. Split leek lengthwise almost all the way through and wash thoroughly. Blanch in boiling salted water until tender. Then refresh in ice water. Dry with paper towels. Separate egg yolk and white and sieve both. Place split leek in a V-shape on plate. Drop caviar into the space of the V and flank with yolk on one side and egg white on the other. Dress with vinaigrette. Serves one.
Oyster and Caviar Canapes
caviar for garnish
Wash and scrub oyster shells. Shuck oysters and retain oyster liquor in shell. Peel cucumber and slice into paper-thin strips. Place oysters on half shells, garnish with cucumber strips and top with caviar (about 1/2 teaspoon per oyster).
Fettuccine with Smoke Salmon and Salmon Caviar
1/2 pound fettuccine
1 avocado, diced
1 large tomato, diced
3 ounces of smoked salmon
1 ounce salmon caviar
2 tablespoons chives, chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, minced
4 generous tablespoons olive oil olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook fettuccine according to directions. Rinse in cold water and drain thoroughly. Toss with avocado, tomato, chives, cilantro and salmon in olive oil. Garnish with caviar. Makes four appetizer servings.
Top these with caviar for a spectacular canape tray:
fingerling potato, cooked and split
hard-boiled egg sliced lengthwise
hard-boiled egg with top cut off
crouton topped with smoked salmon