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The Dearest Eggs Since Faberge, Iranian Caviar Returns

By Florence Fabricant
The New York Times
October 4, 2000

HIGHLY prized Iranian caviar, now permitted in this country for the first time since 1987, is being sold in many Manhattan food shops and by mail order. The question for caviar lovers is, was it worth the wait? And what about the prices, as much as 50 percent higher than for other caviars?

After tasting about 15 samples of various types and grades, I can attest to this caviar's high quality. And in today's caviar-hungry luxury market, I doubt that it will linger on store shelves very long, no matter what its price.

About two-thirds of Iran's caviar production is osetra, much of it from a type of sturgeon, the acipenser persicus, native to the southern Caspian Sea. Like some Russian osetra, the Iranian kind can have a brownish or yellowish hue that occasionally brightens to gold. A particularly elegant, nutty-tasting variety is called karaburun. Iranian osetra is fruity, even winy, and can suggest mushrooms. Prices are $50 to $125 an ounce. Last year, Russian osetra cost about $35 an ounce. (Prices for this year's catch from Russia have not been set.)

Though osetra is the star, Iranian sevruga is also very fine, usually somewhat lighter in color than the often jet-beaded Russian kind, and has a lively, clean flavor. It is rarely as salty or sticky as Russian sevruga can be. The price per ounce is generally $35 to $50, compared with about $20 for Russian.

Large, glistening beads of Iranian beluga, a mere 3 percent of the catch, are tender on the palate without being soft and often have a deeper flavor than Russian. Where top-quality Russian beluga might cost $80 an ounce, Iranian will be $125.

The lofty prices reflect the demand for this caviar, considered by some to be the best in the world. Unlike other countries, Iran strictly controls production.

The way Iranian caviar is cured enhances its quality. Unlike caviar from Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria or China, which is treated only with salt when it is exported to the United States, most Iranian caviar is cured with borax and salt.

Borax, an alkaline compound that is mainly used as a cleaning agent and in the manufacture of enamel and glass, is added to caviar in minute amounts: 500 parts per million. It sweetens the flavor, improves the texture and makes the caviar less likely to break down and become soupy. Caviar cured only with salt can be just as good, but its shelf life is shorter.

Until recently the federal Food and Drug Administration detained any caviar containing borax. This policy was changed in part because the agency decided that the minute concentrations used for caviar, and the fact that caviar is not something people eat daily in large quantities, make it a minimal health risk. But borax has not officially been approved as a food additive. Caviar with borax is so labeled.

Another major factor affecting the price -- and which may in the future assure consistent quality -- is a worldwide agreement called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which sets quotas for the sturgeon catch, because many varieties are endangered.

Thus much less caviar is available. Ninety tons of caviar has been authorized for production in Iran this year, but for conservation reasons, Iran voluntarily reduced that to 70 tons. Caviar experts say that from all the producing countries there may be no more than 160 tons this year, compared with 260 last year, in part because the international agreement is likely to reduce poaching and the black market in Russian caviar.

With demand not likely to diminish, some suppliers may sell tins -- especially of Russian caviar -- packed last year, or even older ones that have been frozen and have an inferior texture. How should the consumer shop for caviar, something that's usually sold in a sealed tin or jar?

Be suspicious of bargains, and willing to pay top dollar from a reputable shop or mail order source. Browne Trading in Portland, Me., fills mail orders at (800) 944-7848, as do Urbani, U.S.A. of Long Island City, at (800) 281-2330; and Caviarteria at (800) 422-8427. Retailers that sell caviar supplied by these companies include Dean & DeLuca, Grace's Marketplace, Citarella and Restaurant Daniel.

Petrossian in Manhattan, (212) 245-2217, also carries Iranian caviar, but I was not able to sample any from this year's catch. Paramount, in Long Island City, (800) 992-2842, says it will have Iranian caviar at the end of this week.

Caviar is shipped in two-kilogram tins (about four and a half pounds), which have a shelf life of at least a year. Smaller sizes have been repacked from original tins, and can be good for a few months. Caviar must be kept properly chilled at 30 degrees, a temperature at which it does not freeze. Buy only as much as you can eat in one sitting.

Each type of caviar is also graded according to quality. Though you may be told that the caviar is ''the best,'' some merchants do distinguish the grades and price their caviar accordingly.

When you spend $100 on a bottle of Champagne you know exactly what you are getting. Caviar should be no different.


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