Vodka and Caviar: a combo fit for a czar
For gourmands, the pairing of regional food with regional drink is pretty much a requirement: Chianti with high-acid tomato sauce; Muscadet with belons oysters; aquavit with pickled herring; spit-roasted lamb with red Rioja; Port and stilton (okay, Port is from Portugal, but the Brits invented it); Scottish smoked salmon and malt whiskey (if you must); Retsina and Greek salad; Guinness and Irish stew.
But Champagne and caviar? Caspian fish eggs with a bubbly wine from northern France? Whaddup? Okay, the first real caviar retailer set up shop in Paris, so there’s the connection, but really …
Champagne and caviar? Mais non!
Nah. The only authentic pairing for caviar has to be vodka. Wanting (somewhat badly) to test this theory, I decided to engage in a little research and homework, pairing luxury vodka with sturgeon roe (insert the overused “it’s a tough job …” statement here). Procuring the vodka wouldn’t be much of an issue. Given that it’s the most popular spirit in Canada, I had more than enough to choose from. Which in itself made the choice a bit difficult. Russian, Polish, Swedish, Finnish, Canadian, American … Then there was the choice of raw material.
Vodka, by definition, is basically a colourless (yes), odourless (doubt it) and tasteless (not according to my palate) spirit distilled (usually) from grain but sometimes from potato. (The French recently set the distilling community — not to mention the EC — aflutter by producing a grape-based “vodka.” Pardonez-moi, mes amis, but if it’s distilled from grape, it’s brandy — marc, grappa, whatever).
Of course, there was only one thing to do. I chose a grain-based as well as a potato-based version. And to keep the playing field as level as possible, I chose vodka from the one country. Since Poland is the only country still making commercial potato vodka, the choice was obvious. And seeing as it was caviar I intended to pair the vodkas with, I figured going high-end was only proper. Enter the dynamic duo of Chopin and Belvedere.
Looks good (sounds good, too)
Poland has been distilling top-quality vodka as far back as the fifteenth century. Belvedere (meaning “beautiful to see” and the name of Poland’s presidential palace) is a four-times-distilled spirit made from 100 per cent Polish rye. Chopin (in honour of the great Polish composer) is made exclusively from potatoes farmed in the Podlaise region and is also distilled four times to maximize smoothness. Both come in at 40 percent alcohol by volume and are priced in the $40 range for a standard 750 ml bottle.
Roe, roe, roe …
Now the tough part. Caviar ain’t the easiest stuff to rustle up these days. And it costs even more than gas. Salmon and lumpfish roe, technically, aren’t caviar (much like vodka distilled from grape product isn’t … er, sorry). Bait, maybe, but not caviar. No, caviar is the salted roe of sturgeon, typically the fish found patrolling the Caspian Sea in search of, well, whatever sturgeons search for (food, perhaps vodka, a way to avoid extinction, most likely other sturgeons, I guess). Problem is, after the collapse of the Soviet Union as we knew it, the protection normally granted to these prehistoric giants kinda dissolved and overfishing ensued (and pollution levels rose), effectively decimating the population.
A moratorium banning the harvesting of Caspian sturgeons ensured that the caviar supply dried up for everyone everywhere (poachers, pirates and general no-gooders excepted). The good news is the ban has recently been lifted and Caspian caviar should be available in North America by the time you read this. Bad news is that you still won’t be able to afford it. If you can, call me (I’d love to do a “follow-up” report to this story). In the meantime, I’m in a bind. Getting my mitts on Chopin and Belvedere is easy, given their popularity. But since I’m writing this in June (even I don’t quite understand magazine lead times), corralling caviar is a different issue. Anything Caspian is probably illegal. Or bogus. Probably both.
Caspian is so yesterday (Canadian is today!)
Well guess what … Canada produces caviar (so does France, for that matter. But as you probably figured, I’m having a bit of an issue with France … but just in this story … no hard feelings, right?). The Marché Transatlantique in Montreal markets caviar from Quebec (Lake Abitibi) and Acadian Gold, which is from New Brunswick. Abitibi is wild, Acadian is farmed. In fact, it’s the only farmed short-nosed sturgeon caviar in the world. Which, for me (and high-end restaurants across Canada), is a very good thing.
“Until the end of the year 1980, the supply was meeting the increasing demand for (Caspian) caviar,” reveals Marché Transatlantique’s president, Bruno Marie. “But it [meant] overfishing in the Caspian Sea. Due to the long maturation of sturgeon — up to twenty years … — stock began to go down.”
Farming of sturgeon was explored and, in 1993, the first sturgeon farm, according to Marie, began operating in the Gironde area of France (around Bordeaux), using Siberian sturgeon. “There are about 30 different species of sturgeon around the world,” Marie reports, “and farming is now taking place in the USA (California), Italy, Spain and, at the end of 2006, Canada. Our first farmed sturgeon caviar, Acadian Gold, is from New Brunswick.”
Though the embargo imposed in 2006 by CITES (the U.N. Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species that controls the caviar industry and sets quotas) has been lifted, stocks are still low. And prices are astronomical. “In 1980, Iran alone produced around 400,000 kilos of caviar,” says Marie. “The Iran quota for 2007 is 4,200.” Oh, yeah, the price for a kilo of Beluga caviar these days is around $11,000. Get in line. By way of comparison, Acadian Gold goes for about $3,000 a kilo. Now everyone can have a “house” caviar.
When buying caviar, Marie strongly suggests seeking out a reputable company and to not be tempted by “deals.” A “best before” date is mandatory, and pasteurized brands are probably the safest bet (the process preserves the original taste and extends the shelf life up to nine months). “Store it in the fridge and consume opened jars within 24 hours, preferably using mother-of-pearl spoons for service,” advises Marie.
“Once opened, the caviar should not have a strong fish smell. There could be a bit of ‘oil’ — which is natural — and it should not be too salty.” You are also advised to serve it at about 5ºC, straight from the jar, which will have been placed on a bed of ice.
Time for the taste…
Not that anything served straight from the freezer can be expected to deliver much in the way of aromatics, this grain-based vodka, however, offered up a very clean, mildly citrus-accented nose. On the palate, it’s brisk, moderately viscous and slightly peppery with a long, slightly anise-tinged finish.
This was more muted aromatically, with earthy, wet stone/mineral notes. Slightly richer and more viscous in the mouth, it displayed less pepper/spice but a bit more finesse on the finish.
Abitibi ($114.25/85 g)
Charcoal grey/green in colour with a slight oily sheen, these medium-sized eggs are slightly soft but in no way mushy. Mildly salty, this caviar has a soft egg-yolk flavour with a medium finish.
Acadian Gold ($90/30 g)
The unanimous favourite of all tasters, these eggs are quite small with a greenish/putty colour. Fairly firm in the mouth, this caviar showed nutty, buttery, very mildly earthy flavours with a hint of saltiness and a long finish.
Basically, Chopin accentuated flavours while Belvedere cleansed the palate. The richer, more viscous and less peppery Chopin brought out the earthy/mineral character of both caviars (perhaps accentuating the Abitibi a bit more). The Belvedere was the palate-cleanser, cutting through the oiliness, richness and viscosity and setting up the palate for another hit.
The ultimate match? A small spoonful of either caviar, followed by a shot of Chopin to accentuate the taste, followed then by a shot of Belvedere to clear the palate for another round. Pure hedonism.
Chopin and Belvedere are available pretty much everywhere. The caviars are distributed exclusively through Marché Transatlantique Ltée (www.marchetransatlantique.com) and/or in fine restaurants and some specialty food stores across Canada.