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Benjamin Epstein / Style

Soaring Sales Show Caviar No Longer Just for the Rich


The songwriting team of Rodgers and Hart once penned: Caviar for peasants is a joke; it's too good for the average man.

But that's no longer the case, according to John Roberts, president of Romanoff Caviar, who hosted a tasting of six varieties of the delicate little eggs last week at the Irvine Hilton and Towers.

On one hand, he said, sales of what are known as "affordable" caviars--roe processed from fish other than sturgeon--have soared in the last few years. On the other, the public's interest in food has soared to the point that even the high cost of sturgeon caviar hasn't slowed any number of culinary fanatics in their pursuit of gastronomic bliss.

"People are no longer afraid to indulge themselves," said Roberts. "They're spending their money to do what they want to do. If it's clothing, they buy the best clothes. If food's their passion, they're going to buy caviar."

At the tasting, the "affordables"--salmon, whitefish and lumpfish--were only tasted as part of recipes (a vodka-based red lumpfish dip, for example).

The three sturgeon caviars, all Russian and from the fall catch of last year, were tasted in all their unadorned splendor. They were:

- Beluga. The large, black berries of beluga (they also can be pearl gray) have a subtle but highly memorable flavor, and are generally considered the finest. They come from a fish weighing from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds. Roberts said the high price, around $50 for two ounces, is due to scarcity; of the total sturgeon harvest, only about 10% is beluga.

- Osetra. These medium-size eggs have brown highlights; Roberts referred to "tones of old brass or old gold." It's been said that osetra has a vegetal taste, in contrast to the clean, moist taste of beluga. "There is some logic to that," noted Roberts, "in that the osetra feeds on more plant life than does either the beluga or sevruga." He added that many connoisseurs prefer its stronger flavor. Price: $40 for two ounces.

- Sevruga. Sevruga is the most available of the sturgeon caviars, and runs $30 for two ounces. According to Roberts, many regular caviar eaters, recognizing the price difference and the minimal taste trade-off, will order sevruga. The eggs are small and deep gray.

Most sturgeon caviar is harvested from the Caspian Sea, which lies between its two main producers, the Soviet Union and Iran. Whether fish caught in Soviet or Iranian waters makes better caviar has inspired much discussion among devotees of the mystique-laden delicacy. Roberts feels much of that discussion is nonsense.

"These fish take 15 years to mature, and they swim freely during that time," Roberts noted. "The caviar grows up without knowing whether it's going to be Communist or Muslim after it's caught, so how can you talk about the quality of caviar from one end (of the sea) or the other?

"The real question is in the handling and processing of the fishes after they're caught. I would say caviar in Iran is more of a cottage industry and an art. In Russia, it's more of a science, well-funded and better organized. But it's kind of like a Rolls-Royce and a Jaguar--either kind of transportation is acceptable."

Discussion about whether caviar sold in Europe tastes better than that sold domestically, however, is not nonsense, Roberts said. In Europe, he explained, borax is used along with salt in the processing, imparting a slightly sweeter taste than that of caviar made for the American market. Although the U.S. government has deemed borax unsafe for internal consumption, Roberts maintains it is not dangerous in the quantities used.

But consumers don't seem to be concerned about such subtle taste differences: Sales of "affordables," which are far less delicately flavored than "true" caviars, have doubled in the last five years. Roberts said that even the most snobbish of caviar lovers are realizing there's a place in their lives for varieties other than beluga, osetra and sevruga.

"American caviar lovers used to say, 'Lumpfish? Salmon? Whitefish? Ugh! If it's not beluga, it's not the best.' Frankly, we had a jet-set attitude," recalled Roberts. "Meanwhile, Scandinavians go for lumpfish without any apology. It's part of the smorgasbord. They don't say, 'I'm sorry, I couldn't afford beluga, all I have is lumpfish.' They eat it, and enjoy it for what it is.

"The lumpfish eggs are small and crunchy. The taste is saltier, for good reason--there's more salt in it. So after tasting beluga, you go to lumpfish and you say forget it. But if you put beluga in a recipe, it disappears. Lumpfish will not. And for lumpfish, we're talking about $3 for two ounces. It's within reach of the normal entertainment budget."

Caviar is indeed showing up in recipes everywhere. Roberts was amused to even see it surface recently on a special Hilton menu for "the American business power breakfast."

"It included one dish called the 'Bull and the Bear' that comes with golden caviar and a foie gras garnish on top of buckwheat blinis with sour cream," he said. "Remember, this is breakfast. "

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