Caviar holds a fascination for gourmands in large part because of the subtle variances in types of caviar. Like grapes used in wine making, the essence of caviar is influenced by many factors as the eggs ripen.
The beluga sturgeon, large and increasingly rare, produces large caviar that is light to dark gray in color. The buttery taste is less intense than fine-grained caviar, and the coarse row offers a delicate texture. In contrast, the eggs of the small sevruga sturgeon are blackish green with a concentrated flavor. The medium-sized osetra sturgeon produces caviar that is deeply golden to dark brown in color and features a nutty taste.
For each type of sturgeon, there are two grades of caviar. Grade 1 caviar features firm, large, intact eggs, delicately taut with fine color and flavor. Grade 2 caviar is still good, and most would be happy to sample it; however, it's simply not as beautiful to the eye or pleasing to the palate as Grade 1. Additional color criteria may be used as well. For beluga caviar, "000" indicates silver or light gray, "00" means medium gray and "0" is gray -- light colors are prized more than dark colors but taste the same.
Damaged roe won't make the grade at all, but this milky mixture can still be eaten. It is heated, placed in fabric pouches and pressed to remove excess moisture, salt and oil. This pressed caviar contains, per ounce, four times the roe of fresh caviar and has a deeply intense flavor.
Although beluga caviar is the most sought-after, costing about $400 for two ounces, it isn't necessarily the pinnacle of the caviar-lover's quest. The rarest, and therefore most expensive, kind of caviar is golden caviar. Also known as "royal caviar" it is thought to be eggs that would produce albino osetra. This caviar, a pale daffodil color, is found in only one in 1,000 osetra sturgeon.
Russian and Iranian caviar is popular the world over, but wild-caught American caviar -- from the Atlantic sturgeon and white sturgeon -- is gaining a foothold in the global caviar trade.
Wondering if you need to eat caviar with your pinky finger aloft? We'll share a few well-mannered tips on the next page.