San Francisco has a surprising density of local caviar packers. Tsar Nicoulai's wonderful Ferry Building bar is gone, but they, their alumni, and others, continue to produce premium caviar in the Bay Area. One of the more recent purveyors is Tsar Nicoulai alumni Deborah Keane Damond's four year old, San Francisco based, California Caviar Company (CCC).
CCC produces caviar from its own Sturgeon, caviar's birth fish. They farm the fish outside Sacramento and process the eggs in San Francisco. They also import caviar and produce simple and infused roes (more on that another time).
The U.S. places annual limits on caviar imports, particularly from Russia. Fish don't survive the harvest, so careful husbandry is required. Under communism the protection of the Sturgeon population was one of the few things that actually worked. With the fall of the wall however, hard currency opportunists have almost wiped out the species. Beyond any extinction sensitivity you may have, this means you won't be eating caviar legally from the Caspian anytime soon unless someone has per-embargo stocks on hand.
CCC imports farmed, versus wild, Osetra caviar (top varieties of caviar are Beluga, Osetra and Sevruga) from Sturgeon breeds common to Russia and Iran. They offer "Russian Osetra" (denoting the breed not location of origin) from Bulgaria, and Siberian Osetra from Uruguay, at $150 and $105 an ounce respectively.
Local providers stand out through their locally farmed sturgeon caviar. Organic practices, carefully monitored and filtered water, and exceptional year round conditions produce consistent, high quality, well priced caviar.
CCC's California White Sturgeon Caviar is $74 to $80 an ounce based on grade (grade denotes size and color but not flavor). Admittedly the flavors are not as refined as the imported product, but the twenty percent reduction in flavor quality is more than offset by the lower price. Value wise, it just gets better from there.
Paddlefish and Hackleback, also offered by CCC, are domestic fish, related to Sturgeon, which have long produced "caviar" in America. Flavors are solid, and pricing even more so. At $35-$38 an ounce this could be your "everyday" caviar, in so much as you can afford to spend ten times as much as a cup of Blue Bottle for you daily pick me up (caviar is very nutritious). Regardless of whether it's everyday, or every holiday, the further ten percent loss in flavor quality is anomalously offset by the massive reduction in cost.
Now that you know how affordable caviar can be, here's some simple tips to make the experience optimal.
Don't use metal to eat caviar as it can impart an unwanted taste. Even caviar metal tins sometimes cause this to happen when their lining is imperfect. One of the nice benefits of the local producers is their reliance on glass for packaging. Beautiful presentation, and a better product experience.
Historically, mother of pearl serving spoons were the preferred choice for caviar, but horn, wood, or even plastic will do the job. I once did a caviar tasting party for a medium sized group and used gelato spoons so everyone could have a new spoon for each flavor. Like fine wine, caviar is better shared.
Don't eat great caviar with anything else. Just eat it plain. Drop it on the tip of your tongue and crush it against the roof of your mouth to feel the eggs burst and get all of the flavor. Chopped egg, capers, onions, or a crème fraîche on blini just take away from the special and subtle flavors you paid for.
Ice cold vodka and champagne may be the classic pairings for caviar, but they are more marketing than marvelous. As the owner at Cyrus once told me, "The Russians just wanted something else to sell us." I don't like vodka with caviar, though a crisp blanc de blancs is a good fit. Try Sake instead for a fun and flavor reinforcing combination, it is a seafood after all.
Now you know what to buy and how to eat it, so here are my tasting notes on what to expect:
Russian Osetra - Smells like my earliest memories of caviar; a slight whiff of the sea and the illusion of an eggy-ness. Olive colored beads the the size of small bbs. Smooth-soft-firm with a modest salinity more of smoked salmon than of the salt itself. Pleasantly creamy with a modest note of umami, the light, brothy, savoriness that is particularly relevant to the category. 92pts
Siberian Osetra - Black-grey-gunmetal coloring. Slightly more reserved on the nose, but with clear notes of its fish born origin. Modestly smaller beads. Flavor is a bit more assertive, almost with a mustiness. Beads are mid-soft-firm. Slightly less creamy but at the same time without an incremental "pop." Subtle salinity. with the richness of an eggs density and almost bready thickness (think of the soft boiled yolk of an egg). 91pts
California White Sturgeon (Royal) - Tawny olive coloring, even lighter nose, more up front salinity in the mouth again with the yolky thickness. Subtler start with a sharp edge at mid palate toward the finish that stands up nicely. 90pts
Paddlefish - Lightest olive coloring so far. A significantly different flavor. Lighter, even with a slightly metallic note. Soft in the mouth. Less compelling. 87pts
Hackleback - Black, as many people expect caviar to be (olive, charcoal and tawny brown is more typical). Medium bodied Tiny tang of the metallic again but in a more brothy, umami mouthful that's rich and filling. 88pts
California Caviar Company products are available direct through their website. They'll even hand deliver to San Francisco addresses with advance notice for an additional fee. You can also buy them during the holidays and through special order year round at Spuntino on Union St and Marina Meats on Chestnut.