Monday, September 27, 2010

Lumpfish Roe Caviar: The Sustainable Caviar?

Despite the uncertainties of the census of its total population and sustainability studies when harvested in a larger commercial scale, is lumpfish roe caviar truly pass muster as sustainably-harvested caviar?

By: Ringo Bones

When tenured zoologists keeping tabs on the declining population of the beluga sturgeon and related sturgeon species in the Caspian Sea region finally sounded the alarm during the latter half of the 1990s that we might be driving these sturgeon species to extinction via uncontrolled caviar harvesting, the search for more plentiful roe from species that can sustainably harvested slowly over the years became an industry of its own. Fast forward to the first decade of the 21st Century, the beluga caviar substitute industry has started to boom thanks to caviar connoisseurs conscientious enough to forgo consuming the endangered species of sturgeon caviar to allow the species to sustainably recover back to commercially sustainable population levels. But do some sturgeon roe caviar substitutes – like lumpfish roe caviar – really pass muster as a more sustainable substitute for beluga sturgeon sourced caviar and related species?

Lumpfish – also known as lumpsucker – is a generic term for the small scorpaeniform marine fish of the family Cyclopteridae. The most well-known of which is the smooth lumpsucker or lumpfish whose scientific name is Aptoyelus ventricosus. Lumpfish are one of the oddest looking fishes that are currently commercially harvested – think Slimer from Ghostbusters. These fish don’t have gas bladders and are found primarily between the continental shelf and continental slope regions at depths between 100 to 1,700 meters.

From a zoological perspective, lumpfish - or lumpsuckers - are a poorly studied group of fishes. In which still very little is known of their behavior, biology and total population - which is the primary reason why most major fisheries regulatory bodies are still reluctant to give the green light for a much increased commercial harvesting of lumpfish or lumpsucker roe as a beluga caviar substitute.

As far as ichthyologists currently know, at least some species – like the smooth lumpfish – are known to travel great distances in order to spawn in shallow intertidal waters during the months of December to June. The male of the species are known to guard the brood of spherical eggs. The egg mass comprising of thousands of individual roes clumps together in adhesive packets which will break open when the eggs are ready to hatch. Very young lumpfish typically stay in shallow waters until they are fully developed, making them easy prey for predators.

Lumpfish have evolved one interesting trait. Their pelvic fins are sticky – which means that the fish can use their sticky fins to “velcro” themselves to hard rocky surfaces. Since they are bottom dwellers, this trait can be quite when they anchor themselves as they wait for a passing meal.

Lumpfish roe is now commonly sold as a beluga caviar alternative. But hardcore caviar connoisseurs often see red over the lumpfish roe caviar industry because some unscrupulous dealers often sold lumpfish roe as genuine true-blue beluga caviar or true sturgeon roe to unseasoned buyers given that its texture can easily fool novice and “first-time” caviar connoisseurs.

While the more well-heeled caviar snobs often look down their noses at lumpsucker roe or lumpfish roe caviar, it can be quite good when it is prepared in a proper way. If lumpfish roe is prepared properly – and carefully – it will have its own unique and distinct effervescing feel in one’s mouth – i.e. each roe bursting open in response to the gentle pressure of one’s teeth. Preparation-wise, lumpfish roe caviar is more unforgiving if improperly handled and prepared in comparison to its classier Caspian Sea sturgeon sourced cousins. Lightly salted or malossol lumpfish roe caviar can be used like beluga sturgeon sourced caviar to accompany various appetizers, and also be added to pasta sauces and spreads, as well as main dishes like omelettes.

Lumpfish roe comes in a range of colors. Most of the lumpfish roe sold commercially is dyed to be either red or black. If one is fortunate enough to find lumpfish roe caviar that is not artificially dyed, it can really make for an unusual appetizer as the roes naturally have that iridescent mother-of-pearl in color. Improperly handled lumpfish roe – like improperly handled sturgeon roe – for caviar use can truly have atrociously-tasting results. If you happen to purchase lumpfish roe caviar with an oily texture and a fishy smell – return it immediately to the retailer and demand a refund.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bowfin Caviar: The Best Sturgeon Caviar Substitute?

As a member of a family of fish that’s even more ancient than the sturgeon, is the bowfin roe caviar currently the best sturgeon caviar substitute?

By: Ringo Bones

The bowfin – scientific name Amia calva – is classified in the order Amiiformes, family Amiidae. In America, the bowfin is better known by its Cajun name “choupique”, also called dogfish, grindle and lawyer. The fish is not related to the sturgeons but belongs to a more ancient family. The bowfin is a primitive fish and a sole living member of a family of fish that flourished as far back as the Jurassic period. As a species, bowfin is more closely related to the gar and is found in the swamps, rivers and lakes of North America from the Mississippi River eastward. The fish has a mottled olive body. The male grows about 18 inches, the female 24 inches.

The bowfin is easily recognized by the bony plate, the gular plate below its lower jaw, and by its long dorsal fin. The fish usually remains in deep water during the day. From time to time, it rises to the surface to gulp air. Anatomically like some archaic fishes, the bowfin’s primitive lung – which later developed into the gas bladder (also called swim or air bladder) is still connected to the gullet and in consequence such fishes, like the gar and bowfin, have, in effect, primitive lungs. Bowfin feeds on other fish, crustaceans, molluscs and insects. They’re nests are a saucer-like depression, about 2 feet wide built in a quiet bay or inlet. The eggs and young are guarded by the male.

To caviar connoisseurs now worried on the declining population of Caspian Sea beluga caviar, the bony bowfin yields a black roe with a distinctive flavour and makes a good tasting but way less expensive substitute for sturgeon caviar. Unlike sturgeon roe, bowfin roe will turn red when heated – which could be off-putting to the inexperienced. Taste wise, many swear by it as the best cost-effective substitute for Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon sourced caviar.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Paddlefish Caviar: Beluga Caviar Alternative Du Jour?

With Caspian Sea sourced beluga caviar already in danger of being eaten into extinction, will paddlefish caviar serve as an abundant alternatively flavored substitute?

By: Ringo Bones

Let’s assume your conscience is callous enough to allow you to consume an endangered species into extinction, it is more likely that you will be stopped by your sparsely loaded wallet. Since being classified as an endangered species back in 1997, whatever legally allowed quotas of beluga caviar being made available on the market since then, their prices had been steadily rising since the start of the 21st Century. But can a more environmentally-friendly substitute be found that’s just as tasty but doesn’t cost almost an arm and a leg?

The humble - and obscure to most caviar connoisseurs – paddlefish (scientific name Polyodon spathula) had lately become the must have beluga caviar substitute du jour. Often called spoonbills, paddlefish are a cousin to the sturgeons and yields a roe that range in color from pale through dark steel-gray and golden oscetra brown. Paddlefish roe caviar is also widely known for their smooth and silky texture and rich flavor.

As a species paddlefish belong to the family Polyodon and is found in the Mississippi River and in some still pristine rivers in China. Described as “degenerate” in evolutionary terms, paddlefish bags its food with its enormous mouth. A relative of the first major group of ray-finned fishes, it has a cartilaginous skeleton and an almost scale-less body, unlike its heavily-scaled predecessors. Paddlefish fecundity is no more or no less than that in comparison to most species of sturgeon. Its relative abundance is mostly due that it is not yet relatively hunted for its caviar.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

North American Whitefish: Caviar for the Masses?

With most sturgeon sourced caviar now in danger of being consumed to death, could the North American whitefish become the best source of caviar for the masses?

By: Ringo Bones

For as long as there been a whitefish industry in America and Canada, it has been suggested – for some time now – that whitefish eggs or roe may be made into caviar. And with the looming inevitability of sturgeon sourced caviar being eaten into extinction, whitefish sourced caviar – like its “fishy” counterpart could become an industry in itself. Fortunately, whitefish has an edge – in fecundity terms – in comparison to its sturgeon counterparts. But can whitefish caviar hold its own in the increasingly diversified – and competitive – caviar market?

Whitefish is an important salmon-like fish of the family Coregonidae. Found in North American lakes from about the latitude of the Great Lakes and northward, it is represented throughout its range by several subspecies. The whitefish, scientific name Coregonus clupeiformis, are very important food fish in the Great Lakes region. And although virtually depleted in some areas of the northern United States due to overfishing and pollution, about 4 million pounds are still marketed annually. Whitefish brings a high price; most of which are sold fresh while some are smoked. Whitefish roe has been made into caviar for as long as there is a whitefish industry in America, but most of it is only sold domestically.

Whitefish lives on a diet of insects and shellfish in moderately deep water for most of the year. It migrates shoreward in late spring and again in fall, when it spawns over shoal areas in depths of 4 to 20 feet. The average specimen runs between 2 and 4 lbs. but it reaches a maximum weight of over 20 lbs. The oldest specimen on record, as determined by reading the year marks on the scales, was 26 years of age. The Rocky Mountain whitefish or mountain herring, scientific name Coregonus williamsoni, is also an excellent food fish which may be caught by dry fly. Other species of whitefish are found in the Northern Hemisphere in temperate and Arctic regions.

Whitefish has crisply sparkling yellow eggs that burst with fresh flavour. Its naturally mild taste lends itself well to various flavour infusions like raw sea urchin to make it taste more like beluga caviar and smoking process. As a whole, mild flavoured caviars’ flavour variability are very dependent of the source fishes’ prevailing environmental conditions which it lived and the ingredients used in the roe’s preparation. Given the species’ excellent fecundity rate and increased anti-pollution and restocking campaigns, not to mention its good price-to-taste ratio, whitefish sourced caviar could well be the caviar for the masses.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Albany Beef: A More Responsible Way to Consume Caviar?

Given that caviar consumption is inherently wasteful from a natural resource utilization viewpoint, does consuming the whole fish that the caviar is taken from more resource friendly?

By: Ringo Bones

Caviar connoisseurs had it lucky compared to shark-fin soup eaters because most sturgeon varieties have a fecundity edge over sharks. But still, given that roe extraction for caviar processing results in the death sentence of the whole sturgeon is it less wasteful if the whole sturgeon is sold along with the caviar? After all, it was proposed back in the 1980s that whole sharks should be sold along with the extracted fins – though fishmongers later learned that sharks reproduce slowly and most of them eventually bowed down to the demands of environmental pressure groups to halt the trade of shark fins. At least a majority of them anyway.

Back to caviar consumption, the female sturgeons are seldom – if at all – consumed after the roe is taken for processing into caviar. It does therefore make better sense that the whole fish should be consumed and marketed. Back in the 19th Century, it was routine practice in the US to sell the sturgeon after the roe is taken. Fishmongers even marketed the product as “Albany Beef”.

Acipenser sturio – or the common sturgeon – was once very plentiful in the Hudson River before overfishing and pollution reduced its numbers. It has been raised successfully in other parts of the United States as a source of domestically grown caviar. The common sturgeon once got the moniker of Albany Beef due to its red flesh that was once considered a delicacy in fine restaurants of New York until the Hudson River’s population of common sturgeon fell below commercially viable numbers. Since it has been grown in other parts of the US in commercially viable numbers, maybe it is time to reintroduce Albany Beef as a delicacy to New York’s fine diners.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Iranian Beluga Caviar: Too Tasty To Be Banned?

Given that the UN Security Council has newly voted punitive sanctions against Iran for their “questionable” nuclear weapons program, will Iran’s caviar exports be banned again this time?

By: Ringo Bones

It was made official back in June 9, 2010 that another round of punitive sanctions aimed against Iran over their “questionable” nuclear weapons program. With the UN Security Council voted twelve to two with one abstention in favor of renewed sanctions that are primarily aimed at arms purchases and the freezing of offshore bank assets of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard – rumored to make up a quarter of Iran’s GNP. Given the latest punitive sanctions, what does this mean to Iran’s beluga caviar exports?

There might be some truth to those free-floating rumors that Iranian beluga caviar exports – especially when destined to the United States - is just “too tasty” for a ban to be successfully enforced. Not surprisingly, during the mid 1960s at the height of the Cold War, Volga River Delta-sourced Caspian Sea sturgeon beluga caviar – i.e. Soviet Union caviar – never got the same US government restrictions that got “supposedly” slapped on Cuban cigars. At that time, American gourmets gladly paid 9 US dollars a serving for Soviet beluga caviar.

Fast forward to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that got underway in Iran that resulted in the hostage taking of American citizens who staffed the US Embassy in Tehran had made drastic decline of Iranian exports of beluga caviar to the United States. While in 1987, then US president Ronald Reagan banned all Iranian exports to the US – including beluga caviar (albeit probably in name only) – in response to the “increasingly bellicose behavior” by Iran that included attacks on American forces and American-flagged Kuwaiti ships on the Persian Gulf. Not surprisingly the word bellicose is still inextricably connected to Iran given Tehran’s recent inability to fulfill their obligations as a signatory country of the Nuclear Weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iranian caviar exports to the US may be in decline, but it is not a result of UN Security Council approved sanctions but due to the inevitable decline of the Caspian Sea beluga caviar after facing over-fishing and pollution challenges. Even though it probably now only forms a minor part of Iran’s overall export one does wonder if Iran’s beluga caviar exports falls under the purview of the Revolutionary Guard? Which is the main reason why America should develop its own homegrown sustainable caviar industry.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Salt Matters

As if the now very rare Beluga caviar is not yet enough to be snobby about, the salt used in its preparation matters too. But do snootier salts make top shelf caviar really taste better?

By: Ringo Bones

The gourmet food world is in a constant search of ways to make them and their preparations snootier than your typical mass-market fast food chain. After all, they had always been the paragon of tastier (for those who can sense and for those who care) and healthier alternatives to fast food chains – albeit the preparation takes a tad longer. But what about those tales about the special kind of salt that goes into the packaging of Beluga caviar, are they just mere stories used to add snob appeal to the finished product?

After carefully extracting them from the Beluga sturgeon’s egg sac, sturgeon eggs are rinsed then the berries are classified according to size and color, and then salted by a specialist referred to as the Master Salt Blender. The best berries are treated as “malossol” meaning literally “little-salt” – meaning that the salt added is no more than 5% of the weight of the batch of eggs to be treated. And the kind of salt used to process the Beluga caviar matters to.

Prior to 1914, the salt used for preparing the caviar was taken from delta of the Volga River in the Astrakhan Steppe in Russia. But ever since the widespread industrialization of the region around the Volga River Delta region that lead to the widespread pollution of the Volga River, the salt taken from its waters via evaporative means is no longer fit for human consumption. It would take 7 years or more of dry storage just to remove the chlorine and other volatile pollutants – like polychlorinated biphenyls / PCBs – from the salts of this now polluted river, while removing heavy metal contaminants involves a not-so-cheap feat of chemistry.

Because of this predicament, salt used in Beluga caviar preparation is now sourced from more pristine remote corners of the Volga River Delta is used. Iran had recently began to purchase salt from Russia to ensure that their Beluga caviar products are as consistent in taste, texture and color as their Russian counterparts.

As it is with chocolate and wine, salt is fetishized by region and the snootier salts can sell for as much as 15 US dollars per kilogram. There’s gray salt, red salt, French salt, Spanish salt, Italian salt, Portuguese salt, salt with algae, salt mixed with herbs, even smoked salt. Each one is a “secret ingredient” of a particular special regional cuisine, like you’ll be hard pressed to replicate the taste of a certain Bavarian sausage you are trying to make yourself using sea salt from your hometown instead of using salt taken from a certain Bavarian salt mine.

Such a wide variety was the norm up until the 20th Century, when salt producer Morton’s used an evaporator to make salt white, fine and uniform, says Mark Kurlansky, author of “Salt: A World History”. According to the author, “It’s an irony of history”, “What saltmakers wanted to do was to have this consistent, pure white salt, and once they succeeded, we got completely bored with it.” So true indeed, and out of hundreds of regional salt types, here are some regional delicacies.

Fleur De Sel, France – Long considered as the Dom Pérignon of salt, it is gathered from the top ponds on an island in Brittany. It’s clean, dry and light, with a nice crunch, no aftertaste and great meltability.

Alaea Sea Salt, Hawaii – Once used only in religious rituals, this salt, the pink color of which became a turn-off for Captain James Cook, has clay impurities. It is a bit harsh and lingers on the tongue. But for me, this is my personal favorite for seasoning sunny-side-up fried eggs. Because Alaea Sea Salt makes my eggs salty enough using quantities smaller that typical run-of-the-mill table salt, it might work as a low-sodium seasoning.

Maldon Sea Salt, England – A salt with a good following even though the last time I tasted one was 25 years ago used in some really great tasting homemade British smoked meats. This sea salt is preferred by chefs and is cheaper in comparison to the others that I’ve mentioned. It looks like tiny pieces of shaved ice. Mineral-like cleavage with a long finish, it has a slight crunch and dissolves slowly.

Ravida, Italy – From Sicily, these fine crystals, which dissolve immediately, are extremely powerful, almost stinging the tongue. Even a small sprinkling feels like swallowing a liter of seawater, which is ideal for preparing homemade gourmet hams and other preserved meats than can be set aside without refrigeration.

I haven’t yet tried using any of the gourmet salts listed above in my DIY caviar preparations, although those with access to some other righteous roe could experiment with them. You can drop me a line and tell which of them works as a salting agent for caviar or caviar substitute preparation.

Can American Caviar Save The Beluga Sturgeon From Extinction?

After receiving rave reviews from prominent caviar connoisseurs during the past few years, will American-made caviar save the Beluga sturgeon from going extinct?

By: Ringo Bones

Though there is still a dearth of concerted conservation efforts to save the Beluga sturgeon from going extinct, the United States – being the number one (up to 80%) consumer of caviar in the world – had tried their hands at finding viable substitutes for the now seriously endangered Beluga caviar. American-grown varieties of caviar and / or Beluga caviar substitutes have since gained popularity after receiving glowing reviews from respected and prominent caviar tasters since the start of the 21st Century. But will these American-grown caviar and caviar-like preparations ever save the Beluga sturgeon from going the way of the dodo especially if the Beluga sturgeon only ends up on the endangered-species lists in name only? After all, without concerted efforts of restocking and spawning of the Beluga sturgeon and a well-enforced moratorium on the harvest and export of Beluga caviar, substitutes for Beluga caviar – no matter how tasty – could serve no purpose whatsoever in preventing its scarcer brethren from going extinct.

Given the success of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho’s white sturgeon recovery program, American-grown white-sturgeon caviar could be the most environmentally friendly alternative to the very endangered Beluga caviar. Stolt Sea Farm’s Sterling brand of white-sturgeon caviar has been touted by caviar connoisseurs as the best alternative to the now very scarce Caspian Sea variants of imported caviar. Sterling caviar has a rich, nutty taste similar to a Caspian Sea sourced Ossetra / Oscetra caviar. Sterling caviar – like Beluga caviar – tastes great straight from the tin or with traditional garnishes like sour cream and blinis / blintze.

After becoming a hit at Tip Sheet’s taste test back in the summer of 2002, Sunburst Trout Co.’s rainbow-trout caviar – made from rainbow-trout roe – was described by noted fish guru Rick Moonen as “decadent” especially when served with crème fraîche. Although cannot be strictly classified as a true-blue caviar under the 1966 U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ruling on what can be labeled as caviar, Sunburst’s rainbow-trout caviar is also notable for its refreshingly effervescent pop. This is one tasty caviar substitute.

Another notable caviar substitute is the wasabi-infused whitefish roe produced by Tsar Nicoulai. Described as having made an imperial showing since its introduction back in the summer of 2002, Tsar’s whitefish roes goes best – according to Michael Schenk, executive chef at New York’s Oceana – on tuna tartare. I haven’t tried this particular brand of whitefish roe yet, but most whitefish roe that I’ve tried so far can be “tweaked” to taste as close as possible to Beluga caviar by adding well-measured amounts of grated raw sea urchin meat.

Very popular in my neck of the woods – although not exactly cheap at around 30 US dollars an ounce – is the great tasting paddlefish roe by L’Osage. Notable for its Beluga caviar like texture and appearance, most folks in my place prefer to eat it with poached eggs and mayonnaise – and they’ll be virtually in heaven. But it is not as good as Beluga caviar when eaten via the traditional method using a tin or silver spoon straight out of the can.

These are just some of viable Beluga caviar substitutes that have been well reviewed by various caviar connoisseurs. Newer ones could be introduced this summer in a food festival near you. If this proves to be a success, it could hopefully lower the demand of Beluga caviar just enough to prevent the Beluga sturgeon from going extinct in their Caspian Sea home waters.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Will A Harvesting and Fishing Moratorium Save the Beluga Caviar?

In the past, harvesting and hunting moratoriums have saved a good number of species from the brink of extinction. Will a well-enforced one eventually save the beluga sturgeon?

By: Ringo Bones

In a Time magazine interview back in 2003, Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and a spokeswoman for a surgeon-hugging coalition that calls itself Caviar Emptor said that: “People are going to have to live without beluga caviar for a while if we are going to have any hope of rescuing the species”. Fortunately, a good number of species of this planet which are formerly on the very brink of extinction had been saved via a well-enforced moratorium when it comes to their harvesting and hunting. But will a well-enforced moratorium on beluga caviar harvesting and / or fishing, trade and consumption – given the difficulty of enforcing it due to relative lawlessness of the Caspian Sea region – be enough to save the beluga sturgeon from eventual extinction?

Even though Americans swallow as much as 80% of the world’s production of beluga caviar, US-based environmental groups have petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service as far back as the late 1990s to put Russian and Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon on the endangered species list. CITES – the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of flora and fauna – had also since recognized the precarious position of the beluga sturgeon as a species as far back as 1997. Both moves would undoubtedly affect the global consumption beluga caviar that had gained ever-increasing popularity in the post-Cold War era Capitalist West due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union and intensified globalization.

It is not only the increasing demand that’s driving the price – and thus hastening the extinction – of beluga caviar. Acipenser husso – the scientific name of the Caspian Sea sourced Russian beluga sturgeon that is the source of beluga caviar – in other words, the world’s best caviar – are under enormous pressure for sometime now. From overfishing, intensified dam construction during the past 50 years and not to mention pollution caused by the former Soviet republics and other nation-states that use the Caspian Sea as a free sewage system. Worse still, most species of sturgeon are in decline – some types by as much as 90% - and those native to the Caspian Sea are especially doomed unless steps are taken to replenish fish stocks. Like the establishment of beluga sturgeon hatcheries and a well-enforced moratorium on the fishing and harvesting of beluga caviar, not to mention the establishment of an effective clean-up program of the increasingly polluted Caspian Sea and its tributaries.

One aspect of the problem of restoring the beluga sturgeon population is of the nature of the beast itself. Chondrosteans – the class in which sturgeons and its relatives like the paddlefish belong – dates back to more than 400 million years ago around the Devonian Period. Are lucky just to be around today due to the stiff competition that they faced in the name of more “evolved” classes of fish during the reign of the dinosaurs. Clad in bony plates, sturgeons are fierce looking and some can even grow to enormous lengths – up to 6 meters from snout to tail and can easily weigh more than a ton.

Unfortunately, sturgeons mature slowly and some don’t begin reproducing until they are 15 to 25 years old. Worst still, when a female Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon does start ovulating and starts producing more than a million eggs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in the US, the result of her fecundity usually results in a death sentence via caviar harvesting. Which can be a very wasteful way to eat Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon via caviar. The carcasses of the mature female sturgeon are seldom – if ever – eaten once the roe is harvested for caviar processing. If you ask me, it is about as wasteful as consuming shark fin soup.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Kootenai Sturgeon Conservation: A Model for Saving the Beluga Caviar?

As one of the success stories of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s species conservation program, will the Kootenai Tribe’s white sturgeon restocking program be used to save the beluga caviar?

By: Ringo Bones

Unlike that of the beluga sturgeon’s home waters where the fish has to contend with the threat of pollution and overfishing, the white sturgeon - scientific name: Acipenser transmontanus - in the continental United States has only faced one major threat during the past 40 years. Namely the extensive dam construction of its river ecosystem. Since the construction of the Libby Dam a little over 40 years ago the white sturgeon’s natural habitat had been slowly – but drastically altered – during the past decades. The Libby Dam held back the vital spring floods that cleared the silt accumulation in the Kootenai River, depriving the white sturgeon of its ideal spawning conditions. Hence the slow but inevitable decline of the species.

Enter the Kootenai Tribe’s white sturgeon conservation program in the state of Idaho. Listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as one of their success stories when it comes to species conservation drastically affected by changes in its ecosystem. Back in September 6, 1994 when the US Fish and Wildlife Service as placed the Kootenai River white sturgeon in their endangered species list, the Kootenai Tribe had already initiated the Kootenai River White Sturgeon Study and Conservation Aquaculture Project four years before. Part of the Kootenai Tribe’s program to save the white sturgeon was to preserve the genetic variability of the population when they started rebuilding the natural age class structure with hatchery-reared sturgeon, and prevent its extinction while measures are implemented to restore the natural production of the species.

Even though the program is an unqualified success, it looks like the Kootenai River white sturgeon are now dependent on human intervention – like the Kootenai Tribe’s sturgeon restocking program – due to the dam’s effects on the river ecosystem. But is this method viable when used to save the dwindling beluga sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea region?

The Russian or beluga sturgeon – scientific name: Acipenser husso – has been heading to extinction not only ever since many caviar connoisseurs swear that it has the best caviar - hence the overfishing - but also of the extensive dam construction of its native river habitat and pollution. Consuming its eggs as a delicacy – from my perspective even though I indulge in it from time to time – is about as wasteful as fining sharks and throwing the carcasses overboard just for the shark fin soup. But given that sturgeon roe – especially beluga caviar – is a very lucrative commodity, wouldn’t it be better if we intervene through establishing a beluga sturgeon hatchery program to bring the numbers back up?

Given the success of the Kootenai Tribe’s restocking program, it does seem viable that using such methods, the number of beluga sturgeon could be increased to numbers that its survival as a species would not be threatened. Despite extensive commercial roe harvesting. But given that there are now very few Russian sturgeon or beluga sturgeon around, will this ever involve caviar-fishing / caviar harvesting moratorium like the one planned on blue-fin tuna by CITES this year?

Maybe a fishing moratorium will play a part in bring back up the beluga sturgeon population, but it will be very hard to enforce given that the Caspian Sea is surrounded by other nations beside Russia. Like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran. All of them have varying commercial interest in commercial caviar harvesting. Just imagine the red tape involved? And given that the various rivers in the Caspian Sea region that have served as a vital spawning ground for the beluga sturgeon, namely the Volga River, the Ural River and Kur River are now full of dams. Human intervention in the form of fish hatcheries – similar to that in the Kootenai Tribe’s white sturgeon conservation program - might be a necessity in order to keep the beluga sturgeon from going the way of the dodo.

Even the writing team in the world of Star Trek were optimistic enough to foresee through conjecture that beluga caviar had survived well into the 24th Century. Like the fictionalized account of an episode in Star Trek: the Next Generation where Captain Jean-Luc Picard served beluga caviar to a visiting high-ranking Klingon official. Is this reason enough to be hopeful over the long-term future of the beluga caviar?

Borax: An Unhealthy Caviar Additive?

Mostly used by Iranian producers of beluga caviar, does borax really pose as a health threat – especially kidney damage - when used as a food preservative in caviar packaging?

By: Ringo Bones

An overwhelming majority of caviar purists – make that beluga caviar purists – say that pasteurization ruins the taste of caviar despite of a guaranteed sanitation and extended shelf-life of the finished product. I mean pasteurization is used supposedly to perform partial sterilization of a substance – in this case caviar – at a temperature that destroys objectionable microorganisms – especially those that causes food spoilage and food poisoning - without major chemical alteration of the substance. Sadly for us caviar connoisseurs, the words ”without major chemical alteration of the substance” has enough of an effect to alter the taste of pasteurized beluga caviar. If pasteurization just won’t do, then what is the alternative?

Iranian caviar manufacturers have over the years resorted to borax – which had become their signature process – as a way to guarantee the extended shelf-life of processed caviar without the negative effects, when it comes to taste, of pasteurization. Borax is a hydrated sodium borate, often used as a cleaning agent and as a flux in soldering and welding, it is also used as a preservative. Borax - from my tongue's perspective - has a slight bitter taste, but at quantities used by Iranian caviar producers, it is far below the taste threshold of the most finicky caviar connoisseur. But is this quantity small enough not to damage the kidneys of you typical caviar connoisseur?

Iranian caviar producers add borax to the salt mix supposedly to give their caviar a “softer and sweeter finish”. Unfortunately, borax is considered an illegal food additive in the United States due to its suspected negative effects to the human kidneys. But Iranian caviar producers swear that the quantities of borax that they add to their caviar are far below the health risk threshold established by the US Environmental Protection Agency when it comes to borax ingestion. Due to the lucrative nature of the caviar trade in the United States, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently changed its policy on adding borax to caviar. Seems like profits trumps health concerns.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Caviar…By Any Other Name?

Prior to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruling, can any fish roe be called – and even sold as – caviar?

By: Ringo Bones

Believe it or not, there was a time in the history of the commercial caviar trade when any fish roe that can be colored black could be called caviar – this was before 1966. This lax law ended during 1966 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defined the product, and established rules for labeling. Traditionally, caviar has always been defined as any processed salted roe – i.e. the eggs of fish especially when still enclosed in the ovarian membrane – typically of sturgeon or other large fish prepared as an appetizer.

The best ones are made from female beluga sturgeon found in the Caspian Sea region. And the ultimate ones are from beluga sturgeon eggs that are caught and processed in the Volga River delta region – famous for being the ancestral home of beluga caviar. Caviar is not only characterized by the fish species from which it is obtained, but also classified based on the size, color, fragrance, flavor, uniformity, and consistency of the berry, as well as the glean, firmness, and vulnerability of the roe skin. Currently, there are three types of caviar that can still be harvested with commercial viability despite of the sturgeon’s decline as a species during much of the 20th Century due to over-fishing and the widespread pollution and damming of its natural habitat.

Beluga caviar is the most well-known type and it is sourced from the beluga sturgeon, a strong nomadic fish and is the largest of the sturgeon family, averaging 4 meters in length and weighing over 1,000 kg. It is now very rare, and only about 120 or fewer fish are caught annually. The roe in a beluga sturgeon can equal 15% of its body weight, and it varies in color from gray to dark gray. The largest of the three types, beluga roe has a fine, delicate skin, considerable texture, and visible “eye” on target in the middle of each egg or “berry”.

Osetra – sometimes spelled as oscetra / ossetra – caviar is more abundant than the beluga caviar – although the Caspian osetra sturgeon – like the beluga sturgeon – is currently facing imminent extinction unless concerted steps are taken to clean up and revitalize its natural habitat. Taken from the oscetra sturgeon / osetra sturgeon, the fish is a medium sized sturgeon measuring 2 meters long and weighs up to 200kg. Being a bottom-feeder, this type of sturgeon uses its elongated snout to vacuum aquatic plants and small sea life up from the seabed. Oscetra roe varies in color from dark brown to gray with golden shading with a fine layered surface. The oscetra roe have a unique taste of hazelnut – which I really much adore – that made its adherents declare it as the finest type of caviar.

Sevruga caviar is taken from the sevruga sturgeon – the smallest of the sturgeon family. Measuring only 1.5 meters long and weighing up to 25kg. Its small upward pointing snout and a distinct diamond-shaped exoskeletal plate is the distinguishing characteristic of this particular sturgeon. Sevruga roe has a fine surface texture and their color ranges from light to dark gray. Sevruga roes are small and they are popular due to their characteristic taste and smell. As the most abundant of the three still commercially fished types of caviar, it is also the least expensive type, thus making it very popular.

Another type of caviar worth mentioning though is the one that is taken from the sterlet sturgeon, as this variety was once extremely popular with the czars of Russia. Its small-grained golden caviar was once considered the finest available. However, the sterlet sturgeon was over-fished to the point of virtual extinction that it became commercially extinct way before caviar gained a notorious status as a sign of Western conspicuous consumption. Though sightings of sterlet sturgeon had been on the rise during the last few years.

So there you have it, the major types of caviar that passed muster in the 1966 U.S. Food and Drug Administration criteria as true blue caviar. Let’s just hope that there will be a concerted effort by the international community to prevent this fine delicacy from going the way of the dodo - or the shark due to unsustainable harvest of sharks for shark-fin soup. With conspicuous consumption comes consumer responsibility.

Does Caviar Consumption Have Pre-Czarist Russia Origins?

Historically, it was commonly believed that the czars and czarinas of Russia made caviar consumption famous, but does this prized delicacy have much earlier origins?

By: Ringo Bones

An overwhelming number of books about the history of caviar consumption usually begin with the czars and czarinas of Russia – in the 19th Century. While there are no surviving / credible historical documents on whether the Romanovs – believed to be of German or Prussian-Lithuanian Stock – already started the caviar consumption craze when they first came to Russia in the late 13th Century.

The earliest documentation on the origins of caviar has always been shrouded in history, although references to caviar in literature and art date back almost as far as the 400 million-year-old history of the sturgeon itself. It has been suggested that by 2,400 BC, ancient coast-hugging Egyptians and Phoenicians had learned to salt and pickle fish eggs to make them last through war, famine or long sea-crossing voyages. Facts supporting that the ancient Egyptians knew about caviar can be seen at the bas-reliefs at Necropolis near the Sakkara Pyramids that portray fisherman catching fish and removing their eggs.

The ancient Greeks – like the ancient Egyptians centuries before - were no strangers to caviar. According to some of the more esoteric writings of Aristotle, lavish Greek banquets usually end with a brass horn section fanfare announcing the arrival of heaping platters of caviar garnished with flowers. Unfortunately, the story of Greek caviar consumption must be reconstructed – not from credible historic documentation itself – but from philosophical and theoretical sources. Hence making Aristotle’s account of caviar consumption in ancient Greece rather fragmentary.

On caviar’s Oriental origins, some scholars’ claim that it was the Turkish who first coined the word “khavyar” from which the English term caviar originates. While others suggest that the term caviar has a Persian origin – “chav-jar” – which translates loosely as “cake of power” or “piece of power” due to the Persians’ widespread belief in the curative and strength-giving properties of caviar. The first written record of the word “khavyar” dates back to the 1240s from the writings of Batu Khan - Genghis Khan’s grandson - long before the word first appeared in English print in 1591.

Before being well documented in Europe, caviar consumption probably started there during the Middle Ages. Although not known for the qualitative aspect of their culinary tastes, Medieval English society considers sturgeon-sourced caviar as haute cuisine. King Edward II proclaimed the sturgeon as a “royal fish” and made a decree that all sturgeon caught in England belonged to the imperial treasury and must be surrendered to the monarch or gentry.

During the Middle Ages, many countries’ sovereigns had claimed exclusive sturgeon and caviar rights. In Russia, China, Denmark, and France, as well as England, most prevailing laws states that: “fishermen had to offer the catch to the sovereign”, often for fixed rewards. While in Russia and Hungary, the sections of rivers considered suitable for fishing the great sturgeon – the beluga, as we know it – were subject to special royal grants. Later on, the Francophone Larousse Gastronomique Cites la Dictionnaire du Commerce mentioned the dish as well in 1741.

Before consuming beluga caviar become a symbol of the Western capitalist high life, only the Russian czars and czarinas were known with enough documentary certainty as the earliest connoisseurs of beluga caviar. As the main conniseurs of caviar in Russia, the czars levied a caviar tax on the sturgeon fishermen. It is said that fisherman subjects of Nicholas II gave him 11 tons of the finest caviar annually as tribute before he was dethroned during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The type of caviar Nicholas II so enjoyed – the small golden eggs of the sterlet sturgeon – were so popular with Russian nobility that the species are now considered “commercially extinct” today.