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Caviar with a Conscience

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.

Salmon Caviars

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.

Farm-raised sturgeon caviar is the best hope for the future. Many top chefs already swear by it. After my snafus with Amazon, it was too late to order American-farmed sturgeon roe, but by then I'd ordered two near-bargain sturgeon caviars at CaviarStar.com. Their French farm-raised caviar has the "melting" texture of true sevruga. The soft, delicious eggs were the least salty of any of the caviars I tasted, and strongly resembled the sevruga I bought years ago, when I began this "tasting" process. It's the most immediately likable of the crew. This site also offers mother-of-pearl caviar spoons and other delights.

Gray Iranian sevruga (the basic version, not one of the premium spreads) was the "control" for all these placebos. It, too, came from CaviarStar, and like the French caviar, it had a "melting" mouth-feel. I thought its texture was like edible velvet, but my partner found it mushy (it does cling to the roof of your mouth). Initially salty and a little tangy, when savored it developed complex maritime flavors that vaguely resembled sea urchin roe (uni at your local sushi bar).

The roads not taken: Sterling caviar comes from white sturgeon farmed near Sacramento. It's the choice of many chefs who've abandoned Caspian caviars, and is typically described as "buttery" or "creamy." It's available in various grades from Stolt Sea Farm, which also offers Scottish, Norwegian, and Brooklyn-style lox at decent prices. From the other end of the world, Uruguayan osetra is developing a fine reputation. Brought from Siberia to Uruguay as fingerlings, the sturgeon have been farm-raised ever since. It's available from Paramount Caviar (www.paramountcaviar.com), which also sells mother-of-pearl caviar spoons and all manner of gourmet delights.

Tsar Nicoulai Caviar offers California farm-raised osetra, along with Siberian, Iranian, paddlefish, and salmon caviars, all at relatively steep prices. (You can also order the Tsar's Cal osetra from Williams-Sonoma, where it's more than double the Tsar's price.)

Serving Caviar

Unopened caviar lasts two to three weeks if kept in the coldest part of the refrigerator, i.e., the meat bin. Once opened, use it or lose it within a few days. Don't use metal spoons (not even sterling silver) to serve or eat with -- they impart metallic off-tastes. If you don't have mother-of-pearl or bone caviar spoons on hand, use plastic spoons. (If you're serving caviar on top of pancakes or blini, regular tableware is acceptable, since there's no such thing as a "caviar fork.") Caviar is best served between 50 and 60 degrees, to bring out the most flavor.

The classic Russian service for caviar is to place it in a glass or crystal bowl set inside a larger bowl filled with ice. (This keeps the caviar a bit too cold, but it's traditional.) Surround the outer bowl with assemble-it-yourself sides of buckwheat blini, plain whole-grain crackers such as melba toast, minced hard-boiled eggs, fine-minced red onions, chopped chives, chopped dill, crème fraîche or sour cream. To drink: iced vodka.

French service typically complements the caviar with a "parfait" of potato-based pancakes (made with egg whites for buoyancy), riced or sieved hard-cooked egg, lox, crème fraîche seasoned with snipped chives, dillweed, and a touch of horseradish and lemon rind. A generous dollop of caviar goes on top. To drink: very cold dry champagne.

Regular-people service: Make German/Jewish latkes or Swiss rôti from whatever recipe you like. Top with chopped lox, crème fraîche, or sour cream (seasoned as in the French service above, if desired), with caviar on top. Scatter chopped chives and dill, if you haven't mixed them into the cream. To drink: a dry Chardonnay. (For salmon or Avruga caviars, dry Sauvignon Blanc, such as those from the Marlborough area of New Zealand, is an option.)

Other ideas: Hollowed-out cooked new potatoes topped with sour cream and caviar. Deviled eggs topped with caviar. A fried whole-wheat tortilla smeared with sour cream and caviar. Pasta with clarified butter, crème fraîche, grated Parmesan, and caviar (lox optional). Or you can dig out your ancient recipe for "caviar pie" (a chilled version of the French parfait, minus the potatoes) and surprise your friends by substituting a good caviar for the lumpfish roe.

What's Wrong with Caspian Roes?

If you read my review of Osetra Restaurant a couple of months ago, then you have permission to skip the following two paragraphs. The problems with Caspian caviars (the "big three" of beluga, sevruga, and osetra) began with the breakup of the Soviet Union. It turns out that the "Evil Empire" (as our president at the time called it) was better at protecting the species of the Caspian Sea than are the impoverished "Stans" (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, etc.) that now govern those shores.

The Russian Mafia leaped at the opportunity to poach sturgeon from unpoliced waters, even as big industry (gasoline companies, hydroelectric generators, etc.) built plants near the coast and started spewing pollutants into the sea. The beluga sturgeon, a species that takes years to mature and even then produces little roe, is now so close to extinction that many of the world's top chefs refuse to serve it as a matter of conscience. The osetra and smaller sevruga sturgeons are also severely threatened. As fewer fish are left to reach maturity, more roe is harvested from barely pubescent fish. This (along with pollution) affects the quality and flavor of the caviar. It also removes young breeders from the population, which bodes ill for future supplies. The only Caspian state that still maintains strict water standards and catch-limits is Iran, which our current Fearless Leader cites as a member of the "Axis of Evil." By next New Year's, I wouldn't be surprised if Iranian products are once again embargoed from the U.S.

Where to Buy Caviar

Whole Foods has the widest caviar selection that I could find locally. At this writing, they were offering hackleback, bowfin (a smaller, saltier Mississippi River species from Louisiana), and whitefish roe, along with more expensive Caspian caviars (osetra, sevruga) packed under the reputable Petrossian label. They expect to have American-farmed sturgeon from the Pacific Northwest on hand from December 15 until New Year's. Harvest Ranch (Del Mar) and Jonathan's (La Jolla) had only Caspian caviars (osetra, sevruga) available on December 1, but Jonathan's may bring in some American farm-raised caviar before Christmas. Seaside Market in Cardiff will have Caspian caviars from just before Christmas until New Year's, or will special-order caviar upon request. (Phone 760-753-5445 and ask for the Fish Department.)

The Russian deli at Lake Murray Square (6060 Lake Murray Blvd., corner of El Paso, La Mesa) has a wide array of caviars at every price range all year long, but unless you can speak a Slavic language to discuss their characteristics with the staff, you may be taking a risk on quality or authenticity. By the time you read this, you may also be able to find Caspian and, possibly, salmon caviars at the delis or fish counters of supermarket branches in upscale areas (in the past I've seen it at the Albertson's near the Coronado Ferry Landing).

Trader Joe's usually stocks some affordable caviars (e.g., paddlefish, hackleback) from mid-December until New Year's Eve, but its days of bargain-priced sevruga are long gone. If you're relying on TJ's, head there as soon as you can, because in my experience, the supply is often exhausted after Christmas.

Web Sources:

All the companies listed below ship overnight or by 2-day air. Unless otherwise noted, shipping charges are $25 (flat fee), possibly higher for heavy packages. Prices are subject to change with fluctuations in caviar supplies, so regard those listed below as guidelines.

Alaska Smokehouse, Woodinville, WA, 1-800-422-0852; www.alaskasmokehouse.com (also accessible through

Amazon.com; search for "Alaskan salmon caviar"): Wild salmon caviar ($11.95/oz.; or $27.95/ 1.75 ounces at Amazon); alderwood-smoked wild salmon caviar ($11.95/oz., or $29.95/1.75 ounces at Amazon); wide array of smoked fish, including black cod, plus desserts and coffees. Shipping varies for direct orders, $32 through Amazon.

CaviarStar, Ocean Isle Beach, NC, 888-268-8780, www.caviarstar.com: French farm-raised caviar ($30/oz.), Iranian sevruga ($40/oz. and up, depending on quality), many other Caspian caviars and gourmet goods, including truffle items; mother-of-pearl caviar spoon ($15).

Gourmet Foodstore, Hollywood, FL, 877-591-8008, www.gourmetfoodstore.com. (also at Amazon.com, search for "caviar"): "Mini blini" ($9.80 for 36); Canadian Malossol salmon caviar ($4.26/oz.); Russian Keta salmon caviar ($5.18/oz.); Avruga caviar ($3.43/oz.); Paddlefish caviar ($13.86/oz.); Hackleback caviar ($13.86/oz); many Caspian caviars and other gourmet goods. 2-day shipping $16.25 plus $1.25/pound; via Amazon, shipping is $22.15 plus $1.80/pound.

Paramount Caviar, Long Island City, NY, 800-992-2842, www.paramountcaviar.com: Uruguayan osetra ($90/2 oz.); American hackleback and paddlefish (each $65/4 oz.); Alaskan salmon caviar ($16/7 oz.), Iranian and Russian Caspian caviars (starting at $80/2 oz.), plus smoked fish, truffle items, chocolates, caviar spoons ($10). Shipping free on orders over $500.

Stolt Sea Farm, Sacramento, CA, 800-525-0333, www.

sterlingcaviar.com: Sacramento farm-raised Sterling osetra ($40-$52/oz., depending on quality); also, several styles of lox, including Brooklyn-style (most $12/8 oz.) and smoked sturgeon ($18/6 oz.).

Tsar Nicoulai, San Francisco, CA, 800-952-2842, www.tsarnicoulai.com: Paddlefish caviar ($48/2 oz.); Hackleback caviar ($48/2 oz.); California farm-raised osetra ($106/2 oz.), plus Siberian, Iranian, and salmon caviars, most at prices that any wealthy Tsar could afford.

Williams-Sonoma, 877-812-6235,www.williams-

sonoma.com. Caviar by web/phone order only (not in shops); Tsar Nicoulai California Osetra ($130/oz.). Zillions of other pricey gourmet treats, including lox, plus a full array of cookware.

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The Rabbit Hole’s Apple Cinnamon Fashioned: fall flavors

Still a spirit-forward drink

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.

Salmon Caviars

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.

Farm-raised sturgeon caviar is the best hope for the future. Many top chefs already swear by it. After my snafus with Amazon, it was too late to order American-farmed sturgeon roe, but by then I'd ordered two near-bargain sturgeon caviars at CaviarStar.com. Their French farm-raised caviar has the "melting" texture of true sevruga. The soft, delicious eggs were the least salty of any of the caviars I tasted, and strongly resembled the sevruga I bought years ago, when I began this "tasting" process. It's the most immediately likable of the crew. This site also offers mother-of-pearl caviar spoons and other delights.

Gray Iranian sevruga (the basic version, not one of the premium spreads) was the "control" for all these placebos. It, too, came from CaviarStar, and like the French caviar, it had a "melting" mouth-feel. I thought its texture was like edible velvet, but my partner found it mushy (it does cling to the roof of your mouth). Initially salty and a little tangy, when savored it developed complex maritime flavors that vaguely resembled sea urchin roe (uni at your local sushi bar).

The roads not taken: Sterling caviar comes from white sturgeon farmed near Sacramento. It's the choice of many chefs who've abandoned Caspian caviars, and is typically described as "buttery" or "creamy." It's available in various grades from Stolt Sea Farm, which also offers Scottish, Norwegian, and Brooklyn-style lox at decent prices. From the other end of the world, Uruguayan osetra is developing a fine reputation. Brought from Siberia to Uruguay as fingerlings, the sturgeon have been farm-raised ever since. It's available from Paramount Caviar (www.paramountcaviar.com), which also sells mother-of-pearl caviar spoons and all manner of gourmet delights.

Tsar Nicoulai Caviar offers California farm-raised osetra, along with Siberian, Iranian, paddlefish, and salmon caviars, all at relatively steep prices. (You can also order the Tsar's Cal osetra from Williams-Sonoma, where it's more than double the Tsar's price.)

Serving Caviar

Unopened caviar lasts two to three weeks if kept in the coldest part of the refrigerator, i.e., the meat bin. Once opened, use it or lose it within a few days. Don't use metal spoons (not even sterling silver) to serve or eat with -- they impart metallic off-tastes. If you don't have mother-of-pearl or bone caviar spoons on hand, use plastic spoons. (If you're serving caviar on top of pancakes or blini, regular tableware is acceptable, since there's no such thing as a "caviar fork.") Caviar is best served between 50 and 60 degrees, to bring out the most flavor.

The classic Russian service for caviar is to place it in a glass or crystal bowl set inside a larger bowl filled with ice. (This keeps the caviar a bit too cold, but it's traditional.) Surround the outer bowl with assemble-it-yourself sides of buckwheat blini, plain whole-grain crackers such as melba toast, minced hard-boiled eggs, fine-minced red onions, chopped chives, chopped dill, crème fraîche or sour cream. To drink: iced vodka.

French service typically complements the caviar with a "parfait" of potato-based pancakes (made with egg whites for buoyancy), riced or sieved hard-cooked egg, lox, crème fraîche seasoned with snipped chives, dillweed, and a touch of horseradish and lemon rind. A generous dollop of caviar goes on top. To drink: very cold dry champagne.

Regular-people service: Make German/Jewish latkes or Swiss rôti from whatever recipe you like. Top with chopped lox, crème fraîche, or sour cream (seasoned as in the French service above, if desired), with caviar on top. Scatter chopped chives and dill, if you haven't mixed them into the cream. To drink: a dry Chardonnay. (For salmon or Avruga caviars, dry Sauvignon Blanc, such as those from the Marlborough area of New Zealand, is an option.)

Other ideas: Hollowed-out cooked new potatoes topped with sour cream and caviar. Deviled eggs topped with caviar. A fried whole-wheat tortilla smeared with sour cream and caviar. Pasta with clarified butter, crème fraîche, grated Parmesan, and caviar (lox optional). Or you can dig out your ancient recipe for "caviar pie" (a chilled version of the French parfait, minus the potatoes) and surprise your friends by substituting a good caviar for the lumpfish roe.

What's Wrong with Caspian Roes?

If you read my review of Osetra Restaurant a couple of months ago, then you have permission to skip the following two paragraphs. The problems with Caspian caviars (the "big three" of beluga, sevruga, and osetra) began with the breakup of the Soviet Union. It turns out that the "Evil Empire" (as our president at the time called it) was better at protecting the species of the Caspian Sea than are the impoverished "Stans" (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, etc.) that now govern those shores.

The Russian Mafia leaped at the opportunity to poach sturgeon from unpoliced waters, even as big industry (gasoline companies, hydroelectric generators, etc.) built plants near the coast and started spewing pollutants into the sea. The beluga sturgeon, a species that takes years to mature and even then produces little roe, is now so close to extinction that many of the world's top chefs refuse to serve it as a matter of conscience. The osetra and smaller sevruga sturgeons are also severely threatened. As fewer fish are left to reach maturity, more roe is harvested from barely pubescent fish. This (along with pollution) affects the quality and flavor of the caviar. It also removes young breeders from the population, which bodes ill for future supplies. The only Caspian state that still maintains strict water standards and catch-limits is Iran, which our current Fearless Leader cites as a member of the "Axis of Evil." By next New Year's, I wouldn't be surprised if Iranian products are once again embargoed from the U.S.

Where to Buy Caviar

Whole Foods has the widest caviar selection that I could find locally. At this writing, they were offering hackleback, bowfin (a smaller, saltier Mississippi River species from Louisiana), and whitefish roe, along with more expensive Caspian caviars (osetra, sevruga) packed under the reputable Petrossian label. They expect to have American-farmed sturgeon from the Pacific Northwest on hand from December 15 until New Year's. Harvest Ranch (Del Mar) and Jonathan's (La Jolla) had only Caspian caviars (osetra, sevruga) available on December 1, but Jonathan's may bring in some American farm-raised caviar before Christmas. Seaside Market in Cardiff will have Caspian caviars from just before Christmas until New Year's, or will special-order caviar upon request. (Phone 760-753-5445 and ask for the Fish Department.)

The Russian deli at Lake Murray Square (6060 Lake Murray Blvd., corner of El Paso, La Mesa) has a wide array of caviars at every price range all year long, but unless you can speak a Slavic language to discuss their characteristics with the staff, you may be taking a risk on quality or authenticity. By the time you read this, you may also be able to find Caspian and, possibly, salmon caviars at the delis or fish counters of supermarket branches in upscale areas (in the past I've seen it at the Albertson's near the Coronado Ferry Landing).

Trader Joe's usually stocks some affordable caviars (e.g., paddlefish, hackleback) from mid-December until New Year's Eve, but its days of bargain-priced sevruga are long gone. If you're relying on TJ's, head there as soon as you can, because in my experience, the supply is often exhausted after Christmas.

Web Sources:

All the companies listed below ship overnight or by 2-day air. Unless otherwise noted, shipping charges are $25 (flat fee), possibly higher for heavy packages. Prices are subject to change with fluctuations in caviar supplies, so regard those listed below as guidelines.

Alaska Smokehouse, Woodinville, WA, 1-800-422-0852; www.alaskasmokehouse.com (also accessible through

Amazon.com; search for "Alaskan salmon caviar"): Wild salmon caviar ($11.95/oz.; or $27.95/ 1.75 ounces at Amazon); alderwood-smoked wild salmon caviar ($11.95/oz., or $29.95/1.75 ounces at Amazon); wide array of smoked fish, including black cod, plus desserts and coffees. Shipping varies for direct orders, $32 through Amazon.

CaviarStar, Ocean Isle Beach, NC, 888-268-8780, www.caviarstar.com: French farm-raised caviar ($30/oz.), Iranian sevruga ($40/oz. and up, depending on quality), many other Caspian caviars and gourmet goods, including truffle items; mother-of-pearl caviar spoon ($15).

Gourmet Foodstore, Hollywood, FL, 877-591-8008, www.gourmetfoodstore.com. (also at Amazon.com, search for "caviar"): "Mini blini" ($9.80 for 36); Canadian Malossol salmon caviar ($4.26/oz.); Russian Keta salmon caviar ($5.18/oz.); Avruga caviar ($3.43/oz.); Paddlefish caviar ($13.86/oz.); Hackleback caviar ($13.86/oz); many Caspian caviars and other gourmet goods. 2-day shipping $16.25 plus $1.25/pound; via Amazon, shipping is $22.15 plus $1.80/pound.

Paramount Caviar, Long Island City, NY, 800-992-2842, www.paramountcaviar.com: Uruguayan osetra ($90/2 oz.); American hackleback and paddlefish (each $65/4 oz.); Alaskan salmon caviar ($16/7 oz.), Iranian and Russian Caspian caviars (starting at $80/2 oz.), plus smoked fish, truffle items, chocolates, caviar spoons ($10). Shipping free on orders over $500.

Stolt Sea Farm, Sacramento, CA, 800-525-0333, www.

sterlingcaviar.com: Sacramento farm-raised Sterling osetra ($40-$52/oz., depending on quality); also, several styles of lox, including Brooklyn-style (most $12/8 oz.) and smoked sturgeon ($18/6 oz.).

Tsar Nicoulai, San Francisco, CA, 800-952-2842, www.tsarnicoulai.com: Paddlefish caviar ($48/2 oz.); Hackleback caviar ($48/2 oz.); California farm-raised osetra ($106/2 oz.), plus Siberian, Iranian, and salmon caviars, most at prices that any wealthy Tsar could afford.

Williams-Sonoma, 877-812-6235,www.williams-

sonoma.com. Caviar by web/phone order only (not in shops); Tsar Nicoulai California Osetra ($130/oz.). Zillions of other pricey gourmet treats, including lox, plus a full array of cookware.

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