Oxana Dragun, the founder of Hong Kong’s Royal Caviar Club, gives her tips on how to pair authentic sturgeon caviar with vodka.
It’s one of the oldest luxury pairings – fresh sturgeon caviar and Russian vodka. But how do we ensure we’re pairing the right vodka with the right roe and how do we make the most of this luxurious match? Oxana Dragun has extensive experience in the luxury food business and founded Hong Kong’s Royal Caviar Club in 2015, presenting the finest, traditionally-produced farmed sturgeon caviar to a coveted clientele.
Firstly, why have vodka and caviar been such popular bedfellows for centuries?
Caviar has a long and rich history. For centuries it was enjoyed by royal families, in part due to the distinction that Russia’s tsars placed on caviar, forging a wonderfully decadent reputation. True caviar – roe from sturgeon fish – was strictly reserved for royalty and brought to the table amongst wreaths of flowers and accompanied by musical fanfare.
Naturally, in Russia, caviar was paired with the finest vodka. Today, vodka continues to be the most traditional match for caviar as the spirit is known to help bring out the flavors of the roe, effectively cutting through the salty goodness while cleansing the palate between helpings, which is especially important if more than one variety of caviar is being tasted.
An interesting fact is that caviar has an additional property that most people won’t know about; it contains a substance called acetylcholine, which improves alcohol resistance. Alcohol is supposed to destroy acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter in the body. Therefore, caviar is supposed to clear the mind when drinking as it restores normal levels of fluidity to cell membranes. This is apparently why Russians first ate a lot of caviar whilst drinking vodka.
What’s the first thing we should look for when it comes to choosing caviar?
To choose good quality caviar, first look at the label; it must have the number of a certificate called “CITES” (the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species). This way we know the caviar is sustainably sourced. The most important information is the name of the sturgeon; usually, it will be shown as three Latin letters. For example HUS (huso huso), standing for Beluga) or GUE (Gueldenstadii) representing Ossetra). I also suggest you pay attention to the ingredients on the label, ensuring it does not have any preservatives or borax. All Royal Caviar Club (RCC) caviar is made with the Malossol method, a traditional Russian salting technique, and has no borax added.
There’s a lot of misinformation about farmed caviar versus wild caviar. What are the differences?
The main difference between farmed and wild caviar is that caviar that is farm-raised is a sustainable option and reduces strain on wild sturgeon populations. Scientists have predicted that if overfishing and pollution of the sturgeon’s natural habitat are not curtailed, the sturgeon faces extinction. In fact, there are only 27 varieties of sturgeon, of which 18 are listed as threatened species, making sturgeon the planet’s most endangered species.
Farmed caviar is not only better for the sturgeon species, but it is also better for you as most farmed caviar is harvested from fresh water sources, as opposed to polluted oceans and rivers. As a result, the flavor characteristics of farmed caviar can be milder due to a number of controlled quality factors, such as water source, feed, and production techniques.
We hear a lot about Chinese farmed caviar. What can you tell us about the caviars coming from China and how they compare to those from classic producers like Russia or Iran?
There’s a big market all around the world for this small delicacy in all its many varieties. Once you have sampled caviar, you realize caviar is not just a food – it is a culinary experience. Most people associate the production of caviar with Russia or Iran but today it can be farmed in many different countries, including France, Italy, Uruguay, and Bulgaria. Among them, Chinese caviar has come under the spotlight for its high output, affordable price, and good quality. This image was bolstered when French chef Alain Ducasse began using Chinese caviar in his restaurants. Chinese caviar is milder and easier to enjoy by itself, and you will not find it too salty or fishy.
What caviar producers does the Royal Caviar Club work with?
The Royal Caviar Club offers an exclusive and unique range of top-quality caviars from around the world, made by traditional methods and using little salt and zero preservatives. Caviar is known to have health and anti-aging benefits and as a delicious powerhouse of vitamins and minerals, including Omega-3, B12, A, E, and B6. RCC has one of the biggest selections of caviar on the market, with products from Bordeaux in France, Iran, Bulgaria, Belarus, China, and others.
Which caviar styles pair best with different vodka expressions?
We highly recommend pairing richer and more powerful types of caviar with stronger and more robust types of vodka, and for lighter caviars to go with softer, smoother vodkas.
For the softer, smooth styles of caviar, Beluga Vodka‘s range works perfectly. Due to its softened, artesian water source, quintuple distillation and 30-day resting period, the liquid is incredibly smooth with its creamy mouthfeel and texture working in perfect harmony with the subtle flavours of softer caviar styles. Our perfect serve for lighter caviar would be Beluga Noble, the reason being that Noble is unique in that it is infused with oatmeal, vanilla, and honey. The vodka’s light sweetness plays perfectly against the saltiness of the caviar which would be lost if paired against a more robust vodka.
For a more powerful type of caviar, we’d be reaching for a bottle of Beluga Allure. The liquid is still very refined and goes through quintuple distillation just like Beluga Noble, but what sets it apart is the addition of maple syrup and fig in its post-infusion process. These richer, sweeter accents bring a much thicker, more robust liquid to the table – think like sipping on a pre-batched vodka old fashioned. Paired with Allure, rich caviar shines, while importantly not sweeping through the taste of the vodka itself so nothing is lost, all is gained.
So, we have our vodka and we have our caviar. How should they be served so as to bring out the best in each other?
The best approach is to serve the vodka in nice glassware – small details matter – and for the vodka to be thoroughly chilled, to the point that you’re taking the bottle directly from the freezer. The finest vodkas have distinct and subtle differences that emerge in the warmth of your mouth. You can now have a nice vodka sip to open your palette.
Prepare the caviar on crushed ice or a chilled plate. Open the tin using a caviar opener or a coin right before serving. Like most foods, the flavour and perfume will emerge when the caviar warms. We suggest putting a good scoop of caviar on the back or side of your hand, as the skin has the perfect temperature and it will help bring out the pure flavours. This is also how many Michelin chefs evaluate the taste and quality of caviar. Chilled and crisp vodka and the saltiness and creaminess of caviar offers a perfectly balanced taste experience.
While caviar pairs perfectly with straight vodka, chilled from the freezer, we’d also suggest stirring some down with dry vermouth and pairing caviar with a chilled vodka martini. We’d suggest keeping your martini on the drier side if you’re using a more subtle vodka like Beluga. However, it’s well worth trying a wetter martini as the light acidity and floral and herbal notes that come through from the vermouth results in a much more rounded liquid that again works perfectly with light, velvety caviar styles. It’s never a faux pas to up your caviar game by bringing out the big guns like a stirred down martini.
We’d offer one sage piece of advice though, stick to the stirred down classics and keep the acidity to a light minimum so as to work well with the caviar and not fight against it. Think vodka Manhattan’s with a rosa vermouth, stinger-style martinis that are dry, with a touch of crème de menthe, or Vepers with a clean, crisp London Dry style.
Why should we be using a mother of pearl spoon for the caviar?
An interesting fact about caviar is that the product is so fragile and delicate that it cannot be served on anything metallic as it can affect the caviar flavour. Instead, caviar is almost always served using the mother of pearl spoon, ceramic, bone, or pure gold!
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