A short time ago I had never tasted any caviar then as luck would have it I was invited to a tasting. The then London based Kaspia caviar rep took my colleague and I aside and led us through the full range of caviars available to the man on the street. This amazing experience opened my eyes to the breathtaking tastes and variations caviar has to offer. For a while we sold these products very successfully until a 60% price rise over a period of 4 months ended our dealings. However, over the 2 years of selling caviar I made it my business to understand the product I was selling and realised how confusing outlets can make it when selling caviar. My research led me to Harrods, selling caviar from Kazakhstan as Russian (back tracked when I pointed out bar code labelling), Fortnum & Mason, selling Iranian caviar over 2 years old, Selfridges, who sold one of our customers farmed caviar as wild and the best of all a small polish deli in Streatham offering 500g of Iranian Beluga for £150 – true retail value nearer to £4000. So all very confusing, but when such a mysterious high valued product is for sale some unscrupulous trading will always happen.
Caviar from where?
Firstly the harvest and sale of black caviar was banned in Russia from August 1, 2007, apart for scientific research. At the time the species was in serious decline, even threatened with extinction. Anyone that attempts to sell you Russian caviar in a store or restaurant is either misleading you or selling an illegal product.
Since the cessation of Russian caviar supply the Iranian wild caviar is now deemed the finest available. Additionally, three other countries with Caspian Sea coast lines harvest high quality wild caviar; Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and eastern Azerbaijan. Of these Azerbaijan is deemed as producing the highest quality. From here we move to farmed caviars produced to a high quality in France and Italy and to a lesser extent in Bulgaria and I understand there is now organically farmed Spanish caviar available.
Varieties of Sturgeon Caviar
Probably the most understood part of the caviar mystery is the names of the predominant species. Everybody knows the name beluga, the largest of the sturgeon, producing the largest egg. Beluga is deemed the finest of all the caviars, something I whole heartily agree with. Oscietra is thought of as the second largest of the Caspian sturgeon that produces three varieties of egg. However, the reason it produces a number of coloured eggs is that Oscietra is more of a description of a type of caviar rather than being limited to the caviar of one single species. Although more often than not it tends to mean the caviar of the Russian Sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii), several other sturgeon produce similar small grained nutty flavoured eggs which are also categorised and sold as osetra caviar. This is the reason why osetra caviar has a reputation for being somewhat variable in colour, flavour and size. We recognise the eggs as the dark, or original for ease of description, the golden Oscietra, and the most sought after of all the caviars the white/golden or better known as Almas. The third of the wild Caspian sturgeon is the Sevruga which produces a much smaller saltier egg deemed the finest of the canopy dressing by many. Those that champion the cause of farmed or cultivated seafood products will argue that there is little difference in taste between produced and the wild eggs. There is such an amazing difference in taste it is overwhelming. From the clean crisp tantalising taste of the golden Oscietra to the thick muddy, almost farmed trout taste, of the farmed Baeri. Granted, if you have not had the chance to taste the upper echelons you may be happy with the inferior option, but I promise once you have tasted the real black there ain’t no going back. So in ascending order of quality, and unsurprisingly price, these are the farmed species of available caviar: Baeri, Baccari, White Sturgeon, Bassetra, Farmed Oscietra.
The Sales Pitch
When caviar was in abundance, because many sized fish were available for capture, their eggs could be graded into distinct sizes. As with any over exploited species the harvest size ultimately reduces and as this fish is being targeted for just its roe it will be caught as soon as it reaches maturity. This means all roe from a single species will now generally be of one size. The addition on tins or jars of grade sizes such as x, xx and xxx, and terms such as Royal, Private Reserve, Imperial and Premium are generally nonsense sales pitches. Historically they had relevance when producing caviar for the Russian czars, but now have no relevance if only for squeezing that extra penny from the American tourists shopping in London’s top stores. Do not be misled by this labeling and just ignore any salesman’s pitch that uses it.
The Important part
Reading this may have tempted you into buying and trying caviar. You may already indulge occasionally or maybe you have it for second course breakfast, after porridge oats, like the boss of one of our customers (absolutely true). What ever bracket you fall into it is an expensive luxury, one that you probably hand on heart know little about. There is one critical piece of information you need to understand before you hand you money over. Something that will distinguish you from the man in front. On the rear of every jar is a small set of serial numbers that outlines everything you need to know.
Firstly is the Standard species code: CITES has determined three-letter codes for the identification of sturgeon and paddlefish species, hybrids and mixed species. 'HUS', for example, is the standard species code for Beluga Huso huso.
Acipenser baerii: Siberian Sturgeon BAE
Acipenser baerii baicalensis: Baikal Sturgeon BAI
Acipenser gueldenstaedtii: Russian Sturgeon GUE (mainly Oscietra)
Acipenser naccarii: Adriatic Sturgeon (Italian Sturgeon) NAC
Acipenser oxyrhynchus: Atlantic Sturgeon OXY
Acipenser persicus: Persian Sturgeon PER
Acipenser ruthenus: Sterlet RUT
Acipenser sinensis: Chinese Sturgeon SIN
Acipenser stellatus: Stellate Sturgeon STE (Sevruga)
Acipenser sturio: Common Sturgeon (Baltic Sturgeon) STU
Acipenser transmontanus:White Sturgeon TRA
Huso huso: Giant sturgeon (Beluga, Great Sturgeon) HUS
Mixed species (for 'pressed' caviar exclusively) MIX
Second is the hugely important source code
Either ‘W’ for wild of ‘C’ for captive bred or farmed in real terms
Thirdly Country of Origin
This is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) two-letter code for the country of origin, e.g. RU for the Russian Federation.
AZ – Azerbaijan
BG – Bulagia
FR – France
IR - Iran
IT – Italy
KZ – Kazakstan
RU – Russia
UZ – Uzbekistan
Fourthly the year of harvest.
Fifth is Official registration code of the processing plant: Each exporting country should establish a national registration system for processing plants, with official registration codes assigned to each. This number corresponds to that code. This code could be prefixed with a country code if the product has been re-packaged.
Last is the Lot identification number: This is a number that corresponds to information related to the caviar tracking system used by the processing or re-packaging plant.
So there it is - Your checklist
Firstly the species matches what is on the tin to the serial number. Most expensive will be Almas, then Beluga, then the Golden Oscietra followed by Oscietra or Sevruga depending on harvest levels. As for farmed the Oscietra will always be the highest valued followed by the white sturgeon. I suggest you forget the rest.
Wild or captive bred? Check as this will alter the price by up to 50% and is the most common area you will be misled.
You can now tell its origins. For reference the most expensive will be from IR, followed by AZ, then the UZ and TZ. Then the farmed - probably IT, then FR and finally BU. If it says RU it is incorrectly labeled.
The year of harvest is the last point of interest. Wild is harvested twice a year. Around February and then again in October. There is no definition as to which harvest this will be, however, NEVER buy caviar with a harvest date that isn’t in the current year. It has a shelf life, a short one, so be careful as it can be a costly error.
Enjoy your tasting and remember – always eat your caviar from the back of a mother of pearl spoon accompanied by a glass of high quality pink champagne.