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.