I've always preferred to spend New Year's Eve at home with my partner and perhaps a few close friends, enjoying a celebratory supper with sevruga caviar as the star ingredient. But during the fifteen-odd years I've enjoyed this tradition, the price of the Caspian caviars has shot up while the quality has declined. This inspired me to look a little lower on the food chain for replacements for roes from that region.
Numerous types of fish roe can be called caviar. I didn't test any of the tiny-egged, crackly caviars (e.g., cod tarama, tobiko from flying fish, masago from smelt, or American golden whitefish). They're fun in their place -- on top of a sushi roll, say -- but their mouth-feel doesn't compare to the juicy roes of sturgeons. And I'm not about to consider the pasteurized, shelf-stable salmon roe and inky-dinky dyed-black lumpfish caviars shelved above canned tuna in the supermarket. I sometimes use them to decorate a once-trendy "caviar pie" (from a recipe developed by Romanoff, the lumpfish company), but they just don't have the glam it takes for New Year's Eve.
Instead, I looked at fresh salmon caviar (which isn't sturgeon-like but has its own merits) and American caviars from paddlefish and hackleback, the Mississippi River's po' white trash sturgeon-kinfolk. Finally, I compared farm-raised sevruga against Iranian sevruga.
When I began this project, a few days before Thanksgiving, the caviar selection at local groceries was highly limited, and not even the specialty grocers had on hand all the types of roe that I wanted to try. I had no choice but to head for the Web. Ordering caviar on the Internet entails overnight air shipment, starting at about $25 per package, so even if you're not doing a caviar-tasting, you want to get as many goodies as you can from a single vendor. If you order from Monday through Wednesday, you should receive your package in two days. If you order on a Thursday or later, your package will usually ship the following Monday.
I began with Amazon.com, that vast clearinghouse of anything and everything. The Amazon "Gourmet Foods" section is still in beta, so vendors come and go. Trying it was a good move, because it allowed price comparisons and also brought me the best salmon caviar I've ever tasted, from an obscure Alaskan processor. But it was also a bad move, because I ran into a snafu attempting to order from a company that was no longer operating under the Amazon umbrella, necessitating a last-minute scramble to get reasonable substitutes. Because of this, I was frustrated in my hope to sample some of the sturgeon caviars currently farmed in the Sacramento area and the Pacific Northwest.
You have to like the taste of salmon to enjoy salmon caviar. The eggs are larger than most sturgeon eggs and pop nicely under the teeth, releasing a burst of juices. In years when I haven't found any Caspian-type caviar at a price I could consider, I've substituted fresh (unpasteurized) salmon roe, which goes splendidly with lox (cold-smoked salmon, normally sliced paper-thin) and potato pancakes.
The Amazon vendor with "the mostest" in the caviar department is GourmetFoodstore.com. This company has arguably the widest selection of caviars at, generally, the most reasonable prices. They even carry vacuum-packed "mini Russian blini" (buckwheat crepes) for traditional Russian-style caviar service. Their salmon caviars are inexpensive. Unfortunately, both their Canadian Malossol ("little salt") salmon caviar and their Russian Keta salmon caviar are mushy and glutinous, with a bitter undertone -- better than pasteurized, but not thrilling. The Canadian is less salty, while the Keta eggs are larger. Both "burst" nicely in the mouth. The Keta proved agreeable topping a Breton cracker, but neither caviar was exciting served solo, nor pleasurable enough to top a restaurant-style "parfait." If you're going to that much trouble, you want caviar with sufficient panache to carry the leading role.
Wild Alaska Smoked Salmon and Seafood (accessible through Amazon -- search for "Alaskan salmon caviar") furnished two fabulous choices, although their prices were close to those for "real" caviar. Wild salmon eggs are firmer and larger than most, so they really burst with liquid when you bite into them. They're salty, but with oceanic flavors and minimal bitterness. The same company offers alderwood-smoked wild salmon caviar. These eggs are salty, distinctively smoky, with little mucal goopiness, and were thrilling flung straight-up on a Breton cracker. No need for cream cheese to mediate. The same company offers other smoked fish, including the succulent smoked black cod (a.k.a. "sable") so beloved of Japanese chefs and Jewish grandmas.
Sturgeon Roes and their Wannabes
Among the wannabes, let's start with Avruga. Its name sounds like a Klaxon horn on a 1920s sports car, a flask of bootleg rum stashed in the glove compartment. The roe tastes about as racy, but it's no more a real caviar than it is a roadster. This is a roe spread from Spain that looks like sevruga but is made from herring eggs, lemon juice, squid ink, thickeners, et al. It has a smoky undertone that resembles anchovies (it's Spanish, isn't it?), and falls into a category I'd call "fun-fish" (as opposed to fin-fish). The soft, tiny eggs have a touch of tartness. The price is so low, Avruga is just right for that silly "caviar pie," and for garnishing deviled eggs or seafood pasta. I found it on Amazon, from GourmetFoodstore.
Paddlefish is a Mississippi River relative of the sturgeon. Last year, I tried a version from Trader Joe's and hated it. This time, I picked up an inexpensive ounce from GourmetFoodstore. It was still disappointing. The small soft eggs are salty and mushy, with a sharp citric edge, and they have neither crackle nor "burst." You can also order paddlefish from Tsar Nicoulai. The Tsar's product may be better, but its price -- nearly double that of GourmetFoodstore's -- bars me from establishing whether it's twice as good.
Hackleback roe (at GourmetFoodstore, also available from Tsar Nicolai) is firmer and blacker, and shares the paddlefish's eccentric tanginess, but its subtler taste hints at sevruga -- third-rate sevruga. Not awful, not great.