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The hard roe of the female sturgeon and only this is entitled to be called caviar. It has always been expensive, but unfortunately with global warming it"s present most important source, the Caspian Sea is fast-shrinking. There are various species of sturgeon, and this also governs the price.
The most important is beluga , the largest; a specimen of which can weight up to 25cwt and as much as 350lb (158 kg) of roe has been taken from one fish, although this is exceptional. The grains vary from light to dark grey, large and generally considered to be the best; osetra comes next in fish size, its eggs varying from brown to gold in colour (the latter fetching nearly twice the price); sevruga are the smallest and are the size of a very large salmon; they produce around 8lb (4 kg) of small-grained grey roe - which has a distinctive sweet taste - preferred by some over all others.
Techniques have been developed to perform Caesarian operations on sturgeons, so that fish can be returned to the river to continue their life cycle.
The roe must be lightly processed - taking about two and a half pounds of sturgeon eggs to make a pound of finished caviar. This processing involves two degrees of salting - fish caught early in the summer are very lightly salted, packed in tins and sold as "caviar malossol" (malossol meaning lightly salted) - this is the best caviar available. Fish caught later in the summer, when the weather is hotter, need more salt - these are packed in casks containing about 60 kg. These are either consumed by the home market, or sent around the world to be re-packaged in smaller units.
A little caviar (about 3 tons per annum) used to be produced from sturgeon on the River Gironde, in France and some is still produced at Amaganstt, on Long Island, U.S.A. True gourmets eat caviar as it is, with a little lemon juice, without the necessity for toast, blinis or butter.
The French production has been replaced by excellent "farmed" from Sturgeon SCEA; they hope to produce about 5 tons during 2001, and it is very competitively priced.
Wild sturgeons, of all types, are under serious threat from over-fishing their limited numbers. See our mail order section for details. See 'Sturgeon'
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