While exploring Tallinn with potential posts for Saucy Dressings in mind, I came upon a quiet and elegant shop and tasting centre where a wide and surprising selection of caviar and lumpfish was on offer, as well as oysters. Selections of different caviar were on offer to taste, for example, and I found that Kirill Siren, who owns the Finlandia Caviar together with his mother, was fantastically knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
So, of course, I had to ask him if he would agree to answer questions on Saucy Dressings and he very generously agreed.
KS: My mother created a fish selling business 20 years ago with my late father-in-law. They were selling trout roe and later a bit of caviar. Within ten years the business grew into a large fish producing and selling company with three shops near the Russian border. Because of the sanctions on Russia, we had to close that down and look for something else to do. Naturally we decided to stay with what we know, caviar and roe.
SD: What are the main types of caviar, and what distinguishes them (taste, expense….)?
KS: While roe is fish eggs of any fish, trout, vendace, salmon, or lumpfish, caviar is the eggs only of sturgeon. Sturgeon is a prehistoric fish, over 200 million years it is virtually unchanged as a species. There are 27 types of sturgeon, most of them are endangered, some are close to extinction and are protected.
The best known and appreciated sturgeon caviar types are:
Beluga – This is what James Bond eats in some of the movies. The fish is the largest of the sturgeon species, it reaches maturity and starts producing caviar at the age of 25 (hence the price). Eggs can be golden or silver, they are large and have a fresh nutty taste
Russian Sturgeon aka. Oscietra/Ossetra – this is a traditional type of caviar. Quite strong in taste, with a strong scent of the sea, and a pleasant fresh after taste. This caviar was already being exported, together with beluga, in the 16th century, journeying from the Caspian sea to the royal courts of Europe.
Siberian Sturgeon and hybrids (these are usually Siberian sturgeon crossed with other representatives of the sturgeon species) – This fish is most widely used in farming because it reaches maturity quite fast, usually 4-6 years. The caviar is in the form of small grains, dark in colour, and it has a medium-strong taste.
and Sterlett – Smaller size sturgeons with small, yet delicious eggs.
SD: Why is some caviar so expensive and others less so?
KS: Intensity of farming, (the conditions – weather and so forth) and time both have a bearing. The maturity to produce caviar. As well as grade level. Some fish, even if they are from the same species, can produce better quality (larger, more firm) eggs than others.
SD: How is caviar affected by season (which season is best for which caviar?)
KS: Nowadays all is farmed, so it really doesn’t matter. However, caviar extracted in the summer tends to have a more muddy, unclean taste because it’s harder to keep the water temperature low and this stops the weeds growing in the pool.
SD: What is the effect of the processing on caviar (do Russians process better than Iranians for example? if so, why?)
KS: The knowhow is generally quite well known, available all over the world, but Russians and Iranians seem to be the most professional from what I’ve noticed at their farms and from the excellence of their produce. As long as the pools where the fish are farmed are kept clean, and the fish taken care of, and the processing instructions followed correctly, the origin really does not matter.
SD: How should you buy caviar (smell, look etc)
KS: Caviar should have a neutral scent, that’s why in caviar tastings caviar is put on the skin, between the index and thumb fingers. After it is smelled, it needs to be visually observed: are the eggs large, are they whole without damage, is the colour pitch black or light grey/green/yellow/golden? Colour does not affect the taste. Caviar should be soft, and your tongue should be able to break it against your pallet without the need to bite. The taste should be fresh, with no muddiness or unnecessary fishiness.
SD: How should you keep caviar (how should you keep unopened caviar? how long will it keep once open…?)
KS: It depends on the produce. A tin of caviar without preservatives, only salt, keeps for 3 months. One with Borax(E285), which is a preservative that can only be used for caviar will last 6-9 months. Caviar pasteurised with borax will last for 6-9 months as well. It is good to note that when caviar nears its sell-by date it becomes stronger in taste. Caviar is tasteless in itself, and salt brings out the flavours, with time these flavours intensify and later turn into bitterness.
Caviar can be stored open for three days, but as it reacts with air and starts to go bitter really fast, it is best to open a tin and enjoy it that day. That’s why purchasing many small tins can be better than one large.
SD: How should you eat caviar (hand…. spoon…. what with….. toast… egg….)?
KS: It depends on the situation. For true caviar connoisseurs a tin of caviar and a golden/mother of pearl spoon (again, no silver spoons as it will affect the taste) with maybe some vodka or bubbly is the best. Or, you can tasted it straight off your hand. We offer it with toast, egg and even truffle butter, this is not only because the tastes come together really well, but also to provide some familiar flavours to our customers to get accustomed to the taste of caviar.
SD: Is there any sustainable caviar (I think you mentioned in the USA they do?)
KS: All caviar sold is sustainably farmed. Wild caviar is forbidden. There are some species, for example White Sturgeon, which is not endangered and can be fished in its habitat (the west coast USA) legally.
SD: Which is your personal favourite caviar and why?
I like Russian Sturgeon aka Oscietra. It has this very strong, lasting flavour. Pleasant saltiness and oiliness, which stays on your pallet for a long time, even after enjoying some vodka you are still able to taste the scent of the sea.
SD: What is the difference between caviar and lumpfish?
Caviar is from sturgeon while lumpfish is a completely different fish, its roe is usually dyed black and used as a substitute to real sturgeon caviar. Usually this is harmless but sometimes people can buy lumpfish with the price of real caviar.
SD: What are main types of lumpfish and why might you use one type in one dish and another type in another?
KS: If we talk about roe, generally fish eggs, some of them are stronger in taste, some milder, some like whitefish can be creamy and buttery, while keta salmon with a very strong of the sea. Lumpfish eggs are perhaps the best known and easiest to find in the supermarket. You need to consider, is it as a main ingredient in a dish, a side or just decorative?
SD: And… finally…. perhaps a recipe with lumpfish if you have one?
KS: I would use Siberian sturgeon caviar, as it is widely available and more affordable. Use croustade (wheat) cups, together with smetana or crème fraiche and some quail eggs. Create beautiful little cups for your party at home and serve with champagne or vodka.