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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Searching for Scarce 'Pearls of the Sea'

Rasputin devoured it. Dostoevsky snacked on it after finishing each chapter of "Crime and Punishment." Brezhnev traveled to Astrakhan to procure the best kind of it.

Caviar, dubbed "black gold" in Russia, is probably the food most strongly associated with Russian culture -- and it's also probably the native food that evokes the strongest emotions in diners. For many, it's a love-it-or-hate-it kind of dish.

"Russian caviar is still the best," said German expatriate Erin Wolfson, a consultant for nonprofit organizations. "I never bring alcohol when I go to dinner parties any more. I just bring a jar of red caviar if I am a bit short on cash, or black if I can splurge. It is the best appetizer I know. It helps whet your appetite for a savory main course."

Others find something, well, fishy about the eggs, known as the "pearls of the sea" in the West.

"I tasted black and red caviar at my first business dinner in Russia in 1992," said American Nad Johnston, a consultant for Russian-U.S. joint ventures. "My reaction was: So, what's the big deal about these fish eggs that pop on your tongue in this despicable way? My hosts were somewhat insulted."

But if you want to enjoy this quintessential Russian delicacy, be warned: You'll have a harder time finding quality eggs than you might have had several years ago.

Caviar remains a classic Russian export -- Russia supplies 80 to 90 percent of the world's black caviar -- but the quality has declined drastically over the last several years, experts say. Pollution and other environmental crises in the Caspian Sea, increased poaching -- which leads to improper harvesting and processing -- and decrease in the state control over the industry have all contributed to the problem.

"We do not want a state monopoly, but the current situation in which anyone can produce such a sophisticated product without quality control is unacceptable," said Vladimir Sonov, deputy director of the Russian Fisheries Committee. "Russian and world caviar consumers are dealing with the consequences of this chaos. What they sell for 60,000 rubles [$10.50] as 100 grams of sturgeon caviar at Moscow's open-air markets is a disgrace. I would advise people to either forego caviar altogether or buy it at a decent specialty store."

American Matt Geiden, who has traveled to Russia many times through his work with a joint venture, said his colleagues used to give him 500-gram jars of Beluga when he first started working in Russia in 1992. Developing a taste for the dish, he began searching for good caviar himself but has discovered that it's difficult to find.

"When I buy caviar in Russia these days, most of the time I'm disappointed with what I get even when I pay top dollar," Geiden said.

As state enterprises in three major caviar-producing Russian regions -- Astrakhan, Volgograd and Guriyev -- shut down, many people who had worked at fisheries turned to the lucrative business of poaching. Poachers do not use the correct technology for harvesting, storing and canning caviar, and they have flooded the market with inferior products, experts say.

Astrakhan remains the center of Russian caviar production and is the home of Russkaya Ikra, the former state manufacturer that is the only firm that continues to produce quality caviar, experts said.

As Western consumers have grown suspicious of Russian caviar, Iran -- the world's second largest producer of sturgeon caviar -- and the United States are seeing an increased interest in their caviar products.

But Russian caviar will likely still always have its fans. "Whenever I travel home to Switzerland, I always take a few cans with me," said Erwin Rohner, chef at the Teatro restaurant, who admits that he doesn't really like the taste. "It's a great Russian souvenir for my family and friends."

But don't take too many cans. Individuals are forbidden from exporting more than 280 grams of red or black caviar out of Russia, said Antonina Yevstennaya of the State Customs Committee.

Aside from the difficulty in finding quality eggs, buying and eating caviar can also be a tricky process for the uninitiated expatriate bewildered by the number of available varieties and unschooled in the delicate rituals of its consumption.

Russians have always enjoyed four types of caviar -- black sturgeon caviar, red salmon caviar, pink white fish caviar, and yellow shark or pike-perch caviar. (See box).

Black and red caviar, the two varieties most known in the West, are the choicest selections for every festive Russian table. Even in the most difficult economic times, most Russian hosts will have a jar or two of caviar tucked away in the cupboard for the honored guest.

"Having elegant caviar sandwiches on the table is a sign of the family's well-being and generosity," said Olga Shchedrina, a retired engineer. "It is more expensive to buy caviar today, especially Beluga, my favorite. I remember in the '70s it was easier to buy caviar than bananas and less expensive. But the times have changed."

But when you're served this dish, aficionados cautioned, you can't just scoop it into a spoon and shove it unconcernedly into your mouth, chewing and smacking all the while -- the culinary equivalent of knocking back a glass of fine wine in one swallow with the aplomb of an experienced tequila shooter.

Sergei Binyavsky, executive chef at the Savoy Hotel, said caviar purchasers should follow a strict ritual when buying and consuming the product -- look, smell and taste.

?Carefully examine the caviar in the jar or on the plate. Experts recommend only buying caviar in jars, rather than cans, so you can see the product. Turn the jar upside down, tap firmly on the top and put it down on a flat surface. The eggs should be packed tightly, with no air pockets appearing in the jar. You should also not see wet spots in the jar, which will mean that some of the eggs have broken or that the caviar was doused in oil to keep it moist.

The eggs must stick to each other, not separate into individual grains, and they should be intact, not popped. "It must look fresh and a little oily," Binyavsky said.

?Next, give it a good sniff. If you're buying caviar in a jar, you shouldn't be able to detect a fishy aroma. If you can smell the caviar outside the jar, the lid may not have been properly sealed. But if you're examining caviar on a plate just before eating, the aroma should resemble that of freshly caught fish. If it smells like herring, the caviar has been inadequately processed or stored.

?The last step, the actual tasting, is the moment of truth for the connoisseur. The caviar should not be overly salty, and every grain must be plump and firm on your tongue as you bite into it.

All caviar jars and cans should have the following information: processing date, name and address of the producer, weight and expiration date. Many chefs and merchants recommend the brand Russkaya Ikra, whose Beluga caviar can be identified by its blue lid on the jar, Osetra by its yellow lid and Sevryuga by its red lid.

Black caviar should be processed with a low salt -- 2.8 percent to 3.5 percent -- solution. Caviar processed this way will be labeled malossol, or lightly salted. Only the different varieties of black caviar will carry this label. The other types of eggs are all processed with a larger amount of salt.

Storing caviar can also be tricky. For it to remain fresh, it must be stored between a constant temperature of minus 2 degrees Celsius and minus 5 C, which is too cold for most home refrigerators and too warm for most freezers.

Some shops do not keep caviar at the proper temperature, while many open air markets do not refrigerate it at all. Your best bet is to store your caviar on the top shelf of your refrigerator.

Lilya Kapilenko, a caviar expert at the Russian Center of Marine Culture, warned that improperly processed or stored caviar can cause food poisoning as caviar contains salmonella and intestinal bacillus.

To keep your caviar chilled before serving, try an elegant "caviar boat," consisting of one bowl that holds ice and another bowl over it that holds the caviar. Metal shouldn't touch the eggs because it changes the chemical consistency of the caviar, spoiling its taste. True caviar lovers use special mother-of-pearl caviar spoons.

After Geiden became a devoted caviar fan, he bought mother-of-pearl spoons and a caviar boat to enjoy his delicacy.

"It is certainly an acquired taste for me," he said. "When I first had caviar, I didn't really care for it because the caviar I tried was not very good. But when I had really good Beluga for the first time, the unusual richness of its smooth texture, the fresh aroma of the sea really seduced me."

The classic way to serve caviar is on lightly toasted white bread with a thin layer of butter and lemon wedges, although purists maintain the lemon isn't necessary. A bottle of chilled vodka is an obligatory accompaniment -- or for the less orthodox, a glass of champagne -- for a time-honored Russian snack.

"Good sturgeon or salmon caviar is a feast for all your senses," Marina Yefstayeva, checking out caviar prices at Yeliseyevsky Gastronom, waxed poetically. "The plump, bright red grains of red caviar seem to contain a bit of sunset and honey in them. Black sturgeon grains are like shiny black beads. Sturgeon caviar smells like sea wind. And the taste is so piquant, it sends your taste buds into ecstasy."