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.