I had an odd conversation with my mother the other day. We were
talking about my father’s third volume of memoirs (not published, a
purely personal project of his) and my mother commented, “We were
“Rich?!” That’s not what I recall. Sure, we were comfortably
middle-class, and, with two well-educated working parents in the 1950s
and 60s, probably upper middle class. But I still remember my mother
borrowing back the allowance she’d just given me in order to buy
groceries for supper that night. And that allowance? I had to pull
weeds, dig post holes for fences, split firewood, and generally work
far more energetically than I ever had any mind to in order to earn it.
I didn’t grow up lacking anything, but I didn’t grow up vacationing on
the French Riviera either – I think we went to Cape Hatteras three
times, once in January – and it snowed.
I don’t know how old I was when I first tasted “caviar”, perhaps 9
or 10 – and it wasn’t real caviar. It wasn’t Beluga, Sevruga or even
Osetra from the Caspian Sea. It was lumpfish roe, dyed black and
salted. I don’t recall if I liked it, but my guess is not.
Nevertheless, this ersatz caviar became a regular canapé (on a
cracker with cream cheese and a thin slice of lemon) at our family’s
holiday gatherings – along with the California sparkling wine.
With Christmas on the way, I’ve been wanting to try some high
quality domestic caviar and when I learned about Collins Caviar I
figured this was my chance. I picked up the phone, called, and got the
owner, Rachel Collins. I didn’t have an expense account, she offered to
give me the caviar if I paid the shipping costs (which came to $51), I
agreed. Wednesday afternoon my parents joined me for a tasting.
Now, good caviar – regardless of source – should taste distinctly of
fish but should do so in the way a breeze off the ocean smells of fish.
Not overwhelming, just clear. It should be salty, but again, not
overwhelmingly so. Think salt spray on your lips. And the “berries”
should burst in your mouth (it’s a textural thing), which is why
Beluga’s large eggs are so famed.
I had Collins decide what to send me and she chose salmon,
whitefish, and hackleback sturgeon roes. She also has paddlefish roe as
well as some specialty products such as smoked salmon row and what they
call a Caviar Margarita flavored with tequila. I tried a small spoonful
of each before my parents arrived and liked the salmon best. When they
got here I sliced a baguette very thin and offered the bread with a
small round of excellent domestic chèvre thinking it’s tartness
would complement the caviar. My parents contributed a bottle of Domaine
St. Michele sparkling wine.
All were lightly salted allowing the flavor of the eggs to shine.
This is very different from the stuff you get at most grocery stores,
which is over-salted and pasteurized to make it shelf stable. In each
case the eggs were perfectly whole – very well cared for during
processing and another mark of good caviar.
The Great Lakes Chinook salmon caviar was our unanimous favorite. It
had a gorgeous salmon color and the eggs were large (Beluga-sized) and
burst perfectly between the teeth – an important textural aspect of
caviar. It also had the most distinctive flavor: I could have easily
eaten 4 or 5 ounces of it all by myself – and at only $18/ounce that’s
not a far-fetched idea. In fact, given shipping charges, the more you
order the cheaper the price.
Our least favorite was the whitefish caviar. It was almost
flavorless with eggs the size of pinheads and even at $10/ounce I
wouldn’t order it again. I wish she’d included the paddlefish caviar
(paddlefish is a close relative of sturgeon), but beggars can’t be
The sturgeon (hackleback) was a surprise. It’s the most expensive of
the lot at $48/ounce and the taste I ate plain wasn’t impressive. Nor
are the eggs impressive, also the size of pinheads. As with the
whitefish roe this means getting the full flavor is mitigated because
many eggs simply aren’t broken when chewing due to their size. But I
found that using a heaping spoonful made a difference. The flavor is
light and supple and really stood out against the tartness of the
I would love to do a side-by-side comparison of domestic and
imported caviars, but that’s an unlikely event and really isn’t my
point here. What I wanted to know is if premium domestic caviars, a
wild food-stuff that is managed to at least some degree and that
doesn’t require shipping from 6000 miles away was a reasonable
alternative to $300/ounce beluga. My conclusion was: absolutely!
The hackleback and salmon roe were excellent with an edge to the
salmon because of the large eggs (and lower price). If you have a
foodie on your Christmas list – or are trying to decide on an hors
d’oeuvre before Christmas dinner – domestic caviar is a great option.
Even the domestic stuff isn’t really cheap, but at least you’re
supporting a nice lady in Indiana instead of a member of the Russian
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