Caviar: Incredible edible eggs

Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Angel hair pasta with a dollop of caviar. (Aaron Eisenhauer)

While he was czar of Russia, Peter the Great had his ambassador deliver a gift of fine caviar to Louis XV, king of France. When, with great ceremony, the young monarch tasted his first mouthful of the precious stuff, he became nauseated and promptly spit it out on the carpet at Versailles.

These days even a royal might think twice about such unmannerly behavior, for caviar is, as Inga Saffron notes in her detailed history of those fabulous fish eggs, "the world's most coveted delicacy."

Thus, as Rosso and Lukins, founders of Manhattan's celebrated Silver Palate, imply in one of their equally celebrated cookbooks: Leftover caviar is practically an oxymoron. You can never have enough, especially on those occasions they identify as times "when the movers and shakers must be dazzled, when laurels have been bestowed, when transitions must be acknowledged and anniversaries celebrated." In short, when it's time to pull out all the stops.

Caviar, what food historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat calls "the last legendary food of modern times," is perfect for such occasions, including New Year's Eve, because as Saffron observes, "Caviar is not just about taste. Those glistening black globules are a culinary Rorschach that unleashes our deeply held notions about wealth, luxury, and life."

No wonder, then, as James Beard remarked, "The roe of the Russian mother sturgeon has probably been present at more important international affairs than have all the Russian dignitaries of history combined. This seemingly simple article of diet has taken its place in the world along with pearls, sables, old silver and Cellini cups."

But caviar has not always had such an impressive culinary reputation and the Russians have not always been, and before long may no longer be, the pre-eminent producers of the delicacy.

Humans have been eating fish roe or eggs since the beginning of time. Even wild animals, when devouring a fresh-caught fish, eat the eggs first. But for centuries such fare was more likely to find its way to a pig's trough than a potentate's table. Though the sturgeon itself, from which the best caviar traditionally comes, was highly valued (in "Hiawatha" Longfellow calls it "the king of fishes"), its eggs were not. As late as the middle of the 19th century, fisherman would routinely toss fish roe to their pigs or merely leave it on the bank to rot. In Russia it was humble peasant food. In America at the turn of the 20th century caviar was actually offered free at saloons to induce thirst among patrons.

In the early 1800s Europe got most of its caviar not from its own waters, but from the United States, which soon accounted for 90 percent of the global supply. Eventually, however, as a result of overfishing and pollution, American sturgeon (a fish Saffron calls Bunyonesque) was nearly at the point of extinction. Consequently, Eurasian, primarily Russian, caviar became dominant.

But today history is repeating itself. Diminishing supplies of sturgeon from the Caspian Sea (the famed Beluga is so threatened that importation of Beluga caviar has been banned) have encouraged connoisseurs to think again about American caviar, just as years ago they turned to American wines. And, believe it or not, they have discovered that many Midwestern river fish -- not least of which is the Missouri paddlefish -- yield caviar worthy even of Chicago's renowned Charlie Trotter's. Talk about incredible, edible eggs!

Angel Hair Pasta with Caviar

This recipe, adapted from Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, is -- like most of her creations -- simple and sumptuous. It makes an elegant first or main course on New Year's Eve.

1 pound angel hair pasta

2 sticks of butter

2 lemons

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

5 ounces black caviar

Cook pasta until al dente. Meanwhile, melt butter and zest and juice lemons. Drain pasta, leaving a small amount of the water, and toss with butter, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Mound pasta on plates and top each serving with a generous dollop of caviar.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Gir-ardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.

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