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Much Ado

Is caviar really much ado about nothing, or does it live up to its reputation?

Is caviar really much ado about nothing, or does it live up to its reputation?I can clearly remember my first time. I was quite young. Still at primary school, I think. All the grown-ups did it. I’d heard lots of talk about it and seen lots of glimpses on TV. It seemed – like smoking – a very adult thing to do, and I wanted to be grown up too. But the first time I finally managed to sneak a drink of whisky (not beer, that was for kids) it was simply vile and I spat it out at once. It was worse than the worst cough mixture. Why on earth did anyone want to drink this stuff? What a lot of fuss about nothing.

Proving that anything much stronger than beer is definitely an acquired taste. You have to keep practicing! But, unless you’re a vestal virgin, alcohol somehow manages to worm its way onto your adult palate. And with the vast majority of folks, it becomes a part of their life to a greater or lesser degree. It’s hardly a lifestyle luxury. Although having said that, when it comes to vintage single malt whiskies and rare wines, this is a whole new subject altogether.

And that brings us neatly to today’s subject lesson: caviar. And, while this is hardly in the same league as that vast body of arcane lore accompanying wine, it’s certainly an icon representing the finer things in life. There’s a whole mystique surrounding the subject, and it’s rumoured that Hogwarts School now has courses in how to cope with it. This is pretty impressive when you consider that all the fuss is about a bunch of fish eggs. But, then, just any old fish eggs won’t do. And this is the point where we discover that caviar has something in common with cinnamon.

And the answer to that little teaser is quite simply this: the chances are that when you eat either of these things you are not munching on the real thing at all! There are two sorts of cinnamon, and the one you most-encounter (on your coffee) is actually ‘Cassia’ – the real thing comes from Sri Lanka only and is far too expensive to sprinkle free on froth. And caviar? There is only one true and original ‘caviar’ and the others with the same name are all marketing ploys. Real caviar comes from one type of fish that’s only found in one small area of the world.

And we’ll come back to that in just a moment. For the while, let’s hop back to where we came in – just how nasty that first teenage taste of strong spirits was (or ‘liquor’ as some folks like to call it). Well, caviar comes packaged with an awe-inspiring ritual all of its own. It usually arrives in a silver bowl, surrounded by ice, and with a tiny spoon made only of animal horn, never metal. To go with this are dinky little pancakes (blinis) and soured cream. The eggs themselves are the size of small peas; a slivery-grey in colour and look exactly like frogspawn. You are required to eat them by putting a tiny smear of soured cream on a blini, spooning the eggs on top, and popping it in your mouth.

And it tastes disgusting! Your first bite will throw you back to a childhood where your mother used to force spoonfuls of cod liver oil into you when you had a cold. You’ll freeze, and your eyes will open wide with the unpleasant shock.

And then . . . after a few moments . . . you’ll feel the silky texture of the eggs begin to melt between your clamped-shut teeth. The texture becomes quite pleasant, really. The flavours of the sour cream and sturgeon roe merge together, and become greater than the sum of their parts.

And you’ll experience a sudden thrill of excitement as you realise you’re holding onto a very expensive mouthful of the world’s most fabled delicacy.

You see, true caviar comes only from the sturgeon fish found in the Caspian Sea. There are several varieties here, of which Beluga is the rarest and most expensive, currently fetching in excess of two hundred dollars for one ounce, depending on the grade. The runners-up are Osetra caviar that is smaller in size, the Sevruga caviar that is lower in quality, and last is Ship, a small to medium size, dark-coloured caviar often mixed with Oetra or Sevruga. This is the heritage of the Russian Court and the legendary Czars of yesteryear. This is the real thing. But you won’t see it in your local supermarket.

Instead, you’ll see what the marketing professionals have termed, ‘more affordable caviar, accessible to everyone’. This is usually the roe of salmon, lumpfish, whitefish or the American paddlefish. The eggs are far smaller, and much darker, often blue-brown or black. It’s much, much cheaper to buy. It doesn’t have the taste, texture, or heritage that the real stuff does – in fact, the only thing it truly has in common is that all are fish eggs. But it’s definitely the best way to begin. Because the other positive thing about corner-shop caviar is that it doesn’t have such an extreme flavour; it’s far less fishy in taste. And, once having got the hang of the ritual and developed a liking for it, it’ll probably prompt you to start saving up for the real thing. From little acorns, as they say, come great oaks. Or in this case, an application to extend your credit card limit and a trip to a specialist auction house!

Much ado about nothing? Probably. But you could no doubt say the same thing about vintage wine. And a work by Van Gogh is only paint on canvas, isn’t it? But for those who appreciate the finer things in life (or aspire to them) caviar is a part of our history and culture. And, like many things, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.


Rob De Wet


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