Please Pass the Caviar

It may be an acquired taste, but it's one worth acquiring -- just try a spoonful for yourself.
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The minute you hear the word caviar, you automatically think of the Good Life, of elegant celebrations and decadent hors d'oeuvres.

This age-old delicacy has long had a place on the festive table throughout Europe and the Middle East, due to its refreshing marine flavor and buttery smooth mouth feel. Even though it may seem a very simple ingredient -- just fish roe, preserved with salt -- it's one of the most expensive foods in the world.

If you haven't tried it yet, it might be time to introduce this food of kings to your palate.

Fishy Business

The sturgeon is traditionally considered the one true source of caviar, and only three of the fish's varieties: beluga, osetra and sevruga, all also called black caviar. The Caspian and Black Seas have been the richest source of these now-endangered sturgeon, with Russia and Iran the major caviar producers.

Beluga is one of the largest type of sturgeon, some weighing up to 2,000 pounds. It is one of the most expensive kinds of caviar in the world, due to its buttery taste and delicate, light- to dark-gray eggs. One ounce of this

Caspian beluga malossol costs around $245.

The astronomical price stems from beluga's rarity, which is due to overfishing, biological vulnerability (females can take up to 25 years to reproduce) and water pollution in its native habitat.

Sturgeon conservation has gained increased attention worldwide; in September 2005, in fact, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service banned the import of wild beluga caviar. Earlier this year, however, a U.N. panel lifted a trade ban on beluga, stating that export monitoring and sturgeon restocking have improved -- but many still are clamoring for increased restrictions to protect this dwindling species.

Osetra sturgeon, which weigh from 50 to 250 pounds, produces caviar with a nutty, slightly fruity flavor, ranging in color from dark gray to brown. Osetra caviar runs around $90 for one ounce of the

Caspian golden osetra malossol.

Sevruga, one of the smallest sturgeons, produces the least expensive type of caviar. The fish weighs less than 40 pounds, and the gray-black eggs are finely grained. One ounce also costs about $90, such as this

Caspian sevruga malossol.

Other, less traditional types of caviar include paddlefish roe, which is sourced from domestic freshwater fish; king salmon roe; and bowfin roe, which is often used in cooking for dressings and cold sauces. These are all significantly cheaper, ranging from about $15 to $65 for one ounce, and are a more ecologically responsible option because these fish are not endangered.

And remember that it's not how much a fish costs that influences its favor. So try a few and see which variety appeals most to your tastes.

Purchasing and Preserving

A wide range of caviars is available online; try

Caviar4you,

Caviar Express,

Marky's or

Bemka House of Caviar & Fine Foods.

The House of Caviar & Fine Foods prides itself on handpicking its selection. "We personally choose

the caviar based on tasting of the sample. We do not simply import our products -- we select them. This is what gives us our stature in the market," says general manager John Jafari.

It's often possible to find deals online, so don't use price as an excuse to not treat yourself.

Petrossian, one high-end provider, is currently offering royal transmontanus caviar, which is sourced from California sturgeon and has a nutty taste, similar to that of osetra. A serving for one to two people, 1 3/4 ounces, costs $95; 4 3/8 ounces, for two to four servings, is $235.

There are many factors that influence price of caviar, including country of origin, freshness, texture, color and taste, says Jafari, and after you spend all that money, you want to ensure that your treat stays fresh. It is best to keep caviar between 28 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit, Jafari advises -- or store the unopened container in a bowl of crushed ice in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Never freeze caviar, however, as that may detract from its delicate texture and taste.

Once a tin of caviar is opened, it should be eaten within a day or two and kept on ice whenever it's out. Consuming it shouldn't be a problem, though. Serve it straight up in small quantities, and try to avoid condiments such as lemon, herbs or sour cream, which can overwhelm its unique flavor. Lightly toasted bread can serve as an accompaniment, if desired.

When eating caviar, be sure to use mother of pearl, wood or plastic utensils instead of metal ones, which are known to alter the eggs' delicate taste.

The traditional drink pairing is champagne or vodka, but again, let your tastes guide you.

If you're a real addict, treat yourself to a proper caviar

spoon and

plate.

Go ahead -- splurge on some caviar and give yourself a cool, savory spoonful or two this summer.

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