Sixty years is a long time to battle an addiction to a controlled substance. I thought I had it beat, but in the last couple of years I have been struggling with a growing and powerful yen for a caviar fix – preferably Russian Beluga – generally between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Over the years I have foraged for and become fond of many of the outdoors gifts of the gods, but I have never foraged for my own caviar, even though I did bring home a couple of sturgeon (roeless males) from the Red Deer River, back when they were protected as the “King’s Fish.” But it was also around that time, when I was just a kid, that I got hooked on the acquired taste of Russian caviar in my home town, Brooks, of all places, about as far away from the source of Beluga caviar as you can get.
One of my best friends was the son of one of the town’s three lawyers. His dad was a graduate of Yale and his mom of Bryn Mawr College, and it was she who turned me on to top class caviar.
They threw great parties, but with some food offerings that were not appreciated in a small prairie town – including crisp little toasts laden with Beluga caviar – that were the subject of one of my dad’s greatest one-liners.
My mom would try anything allegedly edible – once, at least – and suggested dad sample the caviar.
“I’m not eating anything,” the old man said, “that looks like bird shot and tastes like bird sh–!”
“Shhh,” mom interrupted.
So there were lots of the caviar toasts among the leftovers that my friend and I were cleaning up the next day, and his mom was relishing my enjoyment of the caviar. She handed me a spoon and the one-pound tin the caviar came in.
When I cleaned up what was left in the tin – probably 500 dollar’s worth at today’s prices – she gleefully announced “You’ll go a long way, kid,” then recited her unique, racy, and eerily prescient version of a well-known ditty:
“Caviar comes from the virgin sturgeon
And the virgin sturgeon needs no urgin’,
That’s why caviar’s a very rare dish.”
After that Russian and Iranian caviar became ever more rare – and expensive – owing to extensive poaching and the fact that to harvest the roe you kill the sturgeon, thus causing them to become an endangered species and the caviar a controlled substance, both by law and high price.
The few times that I have had premium caviar since that Brooks bonanza have mostly been when someone else was buying – at glitzy receptions, etc.
When we dined at the Russian Pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal I ordered only Belga caviar and all the traditional trimmings, including frigid Russian vodka, and only once since that have I done likewise, at La Chaumiere in Calgary.
But the gustatory memory of the flavour bomb of each tiny egg bursting at the slightest nudge of the tongue does linger on, so I Googled Caviar Direct in Toronto, which offers a wide selection of Russian caviars, from both farmed and wild sturgeon, all within the terms of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species.
My hopes for a festive caviar fix were dashed when I learned the current price of wild Beluga caviar is $150 per ounce.
Then I remembered a couple of lunches at the Macdonald Hotel in Edmonton in May and two entrees that were garnished with a delicious product they called Golden Trout Caviar, which referred to the colour, not the source species, which is farmed rainbow trout in Idaho.
Fisherman’s Pride Seafood store in Red Deer could not supply Golden Trout Caviar, but could bring me in a jar, for only $7.94 per ounce, of German Forellen Caviar, or brown trout caviar, which refers to the source, not the colour, which is also golden orange.
During the festive season we also indulge another acquired taste – for oysters – a fried Malpeque oyster feast on Christmas Eve, with either a stew or scalloped oysters for lunch on Boxing Day.
This year I also had some small New Brunswick Village Bay Oysters from Sobeys, so I shucked a dozen and had them on the half shell on ice to honour the rising of the blue moon, a la Czar Nicholas – with a grating of shallot, a dab of Forellen Caviar and a squirt of lemon juice on each oyster. There was even an icy shot of Russian Standard vodka, which has recently come to Alberta.
Everything was great, but the substitutes merely mask my caviar addiction for the real stuff.
If I save and roll all my loose change, maybe, by the waxing of the next blue moon, I can afford an ounce – farmed, but preferably wild – of Russian Beluga caviar.
Bob Scammell is a local outdoors writer.