The Challenge of Knowing What’s Really in the Osetra Tin

New York Times Caviar Article

FOR those who could afford it, buying caviar used to be simple. In descending order of price, there was delicate, prized beluga; nutty and sometimes golden osetra; and dark, assertive sevruga.

Today, beluga is banned in the United States, and the harvest of wild osetra and sevruga from the Caspian and Black Seas for the international caviar market has been halted at least until February.

In their place, six sturgeon species, along with some hybrids, are farmed for caviar. The differences among them can be murky even for marine biologists. Some dealers are taking advantage of the confusion, and perhaps adding to it, by labeling many of the new farmed caviars “osetra.”

“When beluga was banned in the United States, dealers started pushing osetra,” said Rod Mitchell, the owner of Browne Trading in Portland, Me., which sells caviar and other seafood. “They are still doing it, even when they’re not selling true osetra.”

Some genuine Caspian osetra, or Acipenser gueldenstaedtii, is farmed in Germany, Israel, China, Bulgaria and Italy. Until a few years ago, roe from that species and Acipenser persicus, also from the Caspian Sea, were the only caviars sold as osetra.

But roe from Siberian sturgeon, Acipenser baerii, and from the white sturgeon that is native to North America, Acipenser transmontanus, frequently bear the name of their better known and more glamorous cousin.

“The term osetra is being used rather loosely these days, and while this may not be illegal, it is confusing to consumers,” said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, the executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

The Web site for Paramount Caviar sells Asian Osetra and Baeri France Osetra. Caviar Russe offers “farm-raised Siberian osetra.” In describing some farmed caviars on its Web site, the Miami company Marky’s lists “osetra caviar of Acipenser transmontanus (white sturgeon).”

Then there is the Zwyer caviar sold at Food Emporium. Its packaging states that it is oscietra (one of many spellings for osetra) and uses the motto “The Caspian Legacy.” Tiny print on the jar says it contains roe from Siberian baerii raised in Uruguay, nowhere near the Caspian Sea.

The companies have varying justifications for their use of the osetra name. Alexander M. Guest, who is doing the marketing for Zwyer Caviar, said that baerii is “a kind of osetra.” At Caviar Russe, David Magnotta, the owner, said he does not think it is misleading because the Russian word for sturgeon is osetr. Mark Zaslavsky, the president of Marky’s, offered the same explanation: “All sturgeon is osetra. It’s a commercial term.”

Hossein Aimani, an owner of Paramount, said he uses the term osetra for baerii because “in the last few years that’s what the market has done,” adding that he might rethink his labeling.

An international agreement that controls worldwide trade in endangered species and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service require the big tins used for importing caviar to list the type of sturgeon and its source. And the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees food labeling, states that the information should be given on the smaller containers sold in stores, although a label stating simply “sturgeon roe” is also acceptable.

On some labels, however, the name osetra is prominent, and the true species is seen only in the fine print, if at all.

In an e-mail message, Phaedra Doukakis, a senior research scientist at the institute in Stony Brook, who has been working with the American Museum of Natural History on caviar identification, wrote, “Baerii is not really osetra.” But she also said: “It’s really tough to tell the two apart genetically.”

Nevertheless, there are companies that try to keep things clear. Petrossian, Sterling Caviar, Browne Trading, House of Caviar and Fine Foods and Gary’s Seafood Specialties say exactly what kinds of sturgeon roe they sell, without dressing up transmontanus or baerii as osetra.

Efforts to cash in on Caspian luster confuse the caviar novice as well as the connoisseur who appreciates the complex hints of hazelnut in genuine osetra. It also shortchanges other truly fine farmed caviars now on the market.

“We want customers to understand the quality of our transmontanus,” said Marion Mahone, the general manager of Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, of San Francisco. The company has been calling its transmontanus caviar “California Estate Osetra,” but Ms. Mahone said, “We are dropping the term osetra from our labels. We don’t want to mislead.”

Today’s farmed caviars, often sustainably raised, deserve to be enjoyed for their own merits, like the clean, lightly saline flavor and nice firm texture of transmontanus or the somewhat earthier taste of baerii, which can have a hint of sweetness.

Like Caspian beluga, caviar bargains and price wars are a thing of the past. Regardless of where the sturgeon is farmed, retail prices now start at around $60 for one ounce, a few mouthfuls at best. The only cheaper options are American hackleback and paddlefish, which have improved but might still taste muddy, or salmon and trout roes.

And considering the price, many shoppers may justifiably want to know if there’s really osetra in that little tin.

This New York Times Caviar Article was originally published in 2009.

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