My Caviar Begining...
People have a hard time believing that I have vivid childhood memories from as early as age one or two, but I do. Most of these memories are traumas, or perhaps what my young self perceived to be traumatic. I remember the day I was tricked about going to the circus, only to find out that on the way there, I was getting my ears pierced. I was later informed that that was the recollection of a one-year-old memory.
However difficult it may be for someone to remember their childhood, I can recall mine vividly. I remember a sandbox in the yard where I painfully scraped my knees and the time I broke my lip against the footboard of a wooden bed. I remember crawling into a baby carriage that I outgrew, curious as to why it was left near the shed, only to find out that it was filled with centipedes.
Then there are memories of rooms and furniture placement. Especially the outdoor bathroom next to the home my grandparents had built in the former Soviet Union. I even remember the hush-hush conversation they had with me the summer before we immigrated. Grandma held her Russian-English dictionary and taught me my first English word, "apple".
But there are two memories that I still have to this day that aren't memories of traumas or of floor plans. They are the memories of taste. The first was making sure that the coast is clear and dipping my finger into what seemed to be grandma's beautiful dark blue crystal sugar holder, only to learn that it was actually her salt holder. I remember squirming and spitting from the pungent deception.
The other memory of my first taste of something, before the age of two, was one that enthralled my tastebuds and became my favorite food from there on. I remember someone holding me. The memory isn't clear if it was my mother or my grandmother. Perhaps they were both there that afternoon. It was a sunny day and we were in the backyard when someone brought a white bucket filled with some odd-looking tiny black circles. Tiny circles, like little beads almost. Quickly, a rather large spoon was dunked into that pail and before I knew it, someone was holding the spoonful of those black dots in front of my mouth instructing me to try it. As I opened my mouth, that female voice educated me on what I was trying, "Ikra", she said in Russian, “do you like it?"
Did I like it? Before she finished her question, I was leaning forward asking for more. Never in my life, yes, my two-year-old life, had I ever encountered something that tasted so flavorful. At first, I did not know what to do with these little beads that sat on my tongue. Then I started to move them around, pressing them against the roof of my mouth until the beads burst into a tender briny cream. It was salty, but not like that absurd shock of salt I previously experienced in my grandma's kitchen. This was very different. It was briny, yet buttery tasting. It was smooth and firm all at the same time and it was the most perfect thing I had ever tasted.
Back then, I had absolutely no idea exactly which caviar I had tasted. Was it Beluga, Ossetra, Sevruga, or some other type? I'm positive that whoever had fed me the caviar that day had no clue either. But in all honesty, it didn't matter. What mattered was that I had something so amazing that day that would later play into so many parts of the rest of my life.
I hadn't tasted black caviar again until I was about seven years old. By then, I lived in the US. By then, I knew better than to ever mention to my American friends that I liked black caviar, as I already knew that the unanimous response would be, "Ewe. What are those, like fish eggs or something? That's gross! Who eats fish eggs?"
Let's pause the story right there with a quick time-out. Please, never say fish eggs to a caviar lover. Call them beads or pearls or Ikra or even roe, but just please do not call them, fish eggs. Thank you.
Anyway, back to the story. Now, when I say that I didn't taste caviar again until seven, there were many reasons for this. First, black caviar was very expensive and anything claiming to be the real deal was shelved in high-end department stores for more than my immigrant parents made in a week. Forget immigrant parents, it was a luxury product with a matching price tag for anyone. So the only black caviar I had enjoyed was whatever my parents could get in a local European grocery store. While I never understood why it never quite tasted the same as my baby memory, I didn't really care. This Ikra stuff was still good. Just beadier and brinier than what I remembered.
It wasn't until many years later, when I was a mom myself already and we were at a corporate dinner party that I was in for a second caviar shock. At this party, my husband challenged his boss to order a round of black caviar for everyone that evening. At first, I thought he was joking, but then they brought it all out. A celebratory presentation of many tiny two-ounce glass jars with crème fraîche and all the right garnishes on the side. Being assigned the very important duty of spreading the caviar on little point toasts for everyone that evening, I made the mistake of stating that I'm used to eating black caviar. A mistake that was quickly corrected by someone who apparently knew way more than I did, "It's probably not caviar that you eat. It's probably paddlefish," he informed me.
Insulted? Maybe just a tad. But now I needed answers. What was paddlefish and what was I eating all these years? I called my dad. He would know this stuff for sure. "Dad, you know all these years when you'd bring home black caviar for special occasions, was it really black caviar or was it paddlefish?"
"It was probably paddlefish, but that's the same thing. It's all caviar from different sturgeon."
That only confused me more. Seeing how I was not about to start buying hundreds of dollars worth of caviar jars to figure things out, I dropped it and life went on.
Sometimes we'd have the stuff dad got. Sometimes we'd splurge and get something higher-end. Caviar, paddlefish, or whichever mix of whatever it was that we were buying. One thing was for sure. It always made me happy. I don't know why, but sneaking a secret spoonful would put an instant smile on my face and change my mood for the better. It became my comfort food and my indulgence.
No major event took place in my life without black caviar. My wedding, every huge celebration, and of course, New Year parties were always caviar worthy. I always looked forward to bringing out the caviar and having a secret spoonful (or two... okay three or more).
The only thing was that the more often we were getting it, the more I began questioning things. I started paying more attention to the pearls. I started questioning why the taste from the same stores would always be different and I couldn't quite understand why there was a lack of consistency. As caviar became more readily available in grocery stores, I started buying more and sampling them, but I only got more confused because that opened my eyes up to how many different options there were. Options are great, but who can sample them all without real deep pockets?
Fast-forward a few years, it wasn't until I ended up opening an online gourmet food store, www.RealGourmetFood.com, that I started thinking that it would be a great idea to offer caviar. It is, after all, my favorite food in the world, so why not share the experience, the culture, and the journey?
Another driving factor was realizing that American culture has definitely shifted its opinion on caviar over the years as well. It was when I started bringing some of the first caviar samples home and found my friend's elementary school kids indulging the way I indulge in fine caviar, that I realized that we went from, "Ewe, fish eggs" to "Mmm, caviar".
Today, Europe and the U.S. consume more caviar than anyone. As the demand for caviar across the U.S. makes leaps, it also brings on new trends. Caviar has taken a new lead in creative fine dining. New York chefs are now adding caviar to street food. One visit to South Florida will show you how chefs are finding new creative recipes and presentations that incorporate caviar. One recent innovative chef paired it with ice cream. Although, I later learned that there are certain sherbets it even goes well with.
Don't worry. I'm not here to convince you to start topping your cheesecake and everything you eat with caviar. As a matter of fact, I enjoy my caviar the traditional way, on a blini. Or better yet, on a nice crispy French baguette topped with fresh creamy butter and a teaspoon of fine black caviar.
Now that caviar culture is trending across the U.S., join me on this fun journey as I explore the best caviar finds from the very best sources, with all budgets in mind. Most importantly, let's experience the fun of loving caviar and sharing caviar with those you love!