Petrossian: Caviarchitect of Luxury
Who knew so much Petrossian decadence could fit into a diminutive box no larger than a panettone. Nestled between cold packs, five jars of edible jewels from Petrossian Caviar begged to be unloosed and introduced to a stack of blinis. Yet, in an age of depleted wild sturgeon and general oceanic irresponsibility, I wondered if satisfying a caviar craving was akin to picnicking on White Spotted Owl sandwiches or proposing to a lover with conflict diamonds. Thus, to properly understand and appreciate the goodies, I boned up on Inga Saffron's vast, gritty and noir-esque read, Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World's Most Coveted Delicacy Unlike some glossy, coffee table tome, this is a behind-the-scenes, sea level perspective of the rise and fall of sturgeon, Caspian politics, and caviar culture. After absorbing the book and the jars of caviar, I also caught up with Petrossian Inc.'s Michel Emery, Director of Sales & Purchasing for the eighty-year-old New York firm, Luxist's 2009 Reader's Choice Award Winner for Best Caviar.
The Row Over Roe
While caviar's allure has been venerated for centuries, its modern rarity stems mainly from an incompatibility of sturgeon biology and human development. Sturgeon are older than the dinosaurs, and the Caspian Sea contains the world's highest concentration of sturgeon because it's more of a salty lake than a sea and these ancient bottom-feeders love the brackish deltas and estuaries. Further, since sturgeon always return to the same place to spawn, many of the twenty-seven species are only found in a single river basin. "If a dam blocks the way to a sturgeon's birthplace," Saffron writes, "it will refuse to spawn." Yes, nature has given female sturgeon as many as 10 million eggs per cycle, but these slow-moving, easily-caught giants (the largest beluga ever caught weighed over 4,500-lbs and measured 28-ft long) might only produce eggs ten times during its life. We've squeezed habitats, polluted waters, and hunted them to near extinction à la American buffalo and African elephants, and whereas generations of fishermen on the Caspian used to snag 250 beluga per hour, the catch nowadays yields mostly empty hooks.
White Sturgeon, Black Market
"The business has changed quite a bit from wild Caspian Sea caviar to farm-raised," says Emery. "A big part of what we sell is from white sturgeons farm-raised in California and Florida. It's sustainable and the price of farm-raised versus wild is enormous." Sterling Farm in Sacramento was one of the first complete sturgeon aquaculture operations in the world. And given the dire fish populations abroad-"Right now there are no export quotas in the Caspian Sea for 2009 or 2010," Emery reports-this may be as close to sturgeon as conscientious foodies can get short of dealing with the Caviar Mafia and black market poachers in Iran, Kazakhstan, or Russia. "It cannot be exported legally," he continues, "if you see Caspian caviar in the market, it's from the 2008 harvest" and inedible. "People reluctant to buy wild can feel good about supporting a one-hundred-percent sustainable American producer."
Petrossian sold 12 tons of caviar in 2009, including Sterling's complete production. Sterling is a closed-circuit, inland farm. Indigenous white sturgeon, a species still found in the San Francisco River, are raised in circular pools up to 10-feet high containing hundreds of fish. It takes a female 6-9 yrs to produce great caviar, but the males (known as "empties") go into production for meat. Sturgeon meat is said to have more cholesterol and fat than pork. In Caviar, Saffron details how the meat was lauded even in ancient times. "The fish was such a luxury that one writer claimed that a single bowl of sturgeon meat in the Athens market went for the same price as one hundred sheep and a bull." The menu at Oregon's Stephanie Inn recently included Columbia River Sturgeon over buttery orzo and roasted tomato with lemon basil sauce...sounds reasonable that a call for more of this fish will help vitalize the sturgeon trade by making more than a fraction of the population valuable.
To host a caviar tasting, apportion 10-30 grams per person."And forget the chopped eggs and capers," advises Emery, "absolutely not necessary for this quality. You're not going to taste the caviar. Simpler is better." Taste it atop toast points or blinis, or straight from the spoon. Emery says that more and more chefs--Jean-Georges and Thomas Keller (click for pix)--are making caviar accessible by incorporating it into dishes." As for pairings, go classic: vodka or very dry champagne. You'll also need proper spoons. Standard flatware reacts undesirably with caviar and imparts a metallic flavor. Hence, traditional caviar spoons are made of nacre, aka Mother of pearl, and besides being natural and non-reactive, their sea-formed iridescence adds to the aesthetic ritual.
In 2009, white truffles ran upwards of $300 per ounce, but paycheck-stretching gourmands look instead to truffle oil to partly satisfy their hankering. When the blini budget is similarly blown, try the new Caviarcube. Inspired by pressed caviar, a once-popular product that was sliced like cheese and lasted months, it's a condensed paste made of three grades of 100% Transmontanus. You lose the textural sensation of beads on the tongues, but the flavor is intense and the price tag ($45 for 20g, about16-20 cubes) is easy to swallow. Emery recommends the cubes "with pasta or new potatoes...or great with canapés over cucumber."Care & Maintenance
Place an order and it's packed that day. Petrossian uses FedEx or PeriShip to land caviar on your doorstep 24-48 hours after your order is received. Next, chop some ice in a blender to create a cold bed for the jars to rest upon (I've scooped snow into pretty bowls during whiteouts). Keep refrigerated in that colder zone in the bottom or back of your icebox. Emery says, "28-35-degrees is ideal.Because of the oil and salt, it will not freeze." Shelf life is two months from the time it is packed, though, like croissants or love notes, caviar ought to be enjoyed at the next possible moment of leisure.
When the night begs for eggs...
Over a weekend, I indulged in a quintet of quintessential caviars. Tasting notes follow below. Also, have a look at the last time I had this many eggs sans an Easter hunt: takes a sec to load, but worth it. If you've got to feed that caviar fix more often than occasionally, consider Petrossian's version of the microbrew of the month club: six months of caviar. Or, go green with the reusable Swarovski Caviar Presentoir, 250g = $5450. Sorry, no free refills. And please, spread the wealth: share with intimates...or at least send one month's bounty to the clerk who let me in at 8:01pm.
Trout Roe, 250g = $50
electric orange the color of salmon sashimi.
largest bead of the lot
soft pop, medium saltiness
great taste and color pairing with Pinky Vodka, the vodka's fruit calms the salt
Alverta President, 250g = $975
inviting tiger's eye color
earthy and mildly sweet, nutty
buttery, rich texture
best with the clean vodka
Royal Transmontanus, 250g = $550
deep silvery gray
bigger beads and more salty
not as elegant as the last two
salt less integrated into berry flavor
lentil or olive hued
salt, earth and smoothness all in balance
firm, juicy beads
mildest of the bunch