It’s the time of year when our wandering minds turn to champagne wishes and caviar dreams. (Thanks for the inspiration, Robin Leach.) And since our Di Bruno brains are always thinking of how to incorporate cheese into everything, today we’re tossing the notion that fish and cheese don’t mix and thinking up a selection of sea-inspired cheesy snacks. Technically, this makes perfect sense, as the addition of cheese is simply a rich fat to balance a briny, fishy flavor sensation.
Cheese and Caviar Pairing
With New Year’s approaching, the time to splurge on caviar is now!
Let’s Learn Something First: What is Caviar?
If you’ve heard the notion that caviar is basically fancy fish eggs…well, you’re right. Caviar is lightly salted fish eggs from a female fish, traditionally coming from sturgeon. More affordable caviar is also made from salmon and the American paddlefish. The eggs aren’t cooked and need no further treatment (beyond a certain amount of curing) before being eaten. Great caviar can be eaten as-is, with accompaniments, or put on top of other complementary foods. The taste is fishy and a bit salty, like a whip of fresh sea air. The texture is soft, with the individual eggs popping against the roof of your mouth and on your tongue.
Caviar is judged on its color, flavor, texture and maturity. The finest, most expensive caviars are older, larger eggs that are lighter in color, on occasion bordering towards translucent. Lower quality caviar is younger, with a less intensely fishy flavor, and tends to be darker in color. Caviar should be packed in brine, although some of the less expensive ones may also be packed in oil. (It’s not bad, it’s just different.)
Before raw oysters, before Champagne, before even truffles were deemed a delicacy, caviar was coveted by kings and the aristocracy. Caviar was originally harvested by Russian and Persian fishermen in the Caspian Sea. Ancient Greeks, Romans and Russian tsars were all known to splurge on caviar when they were able to. The name itself refers to unfertilized salt-cured fish eggs from different species of sturgeon, famously including Ossetra, Sevruga and Beluga. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most expensive of all caviar, and indeed the world’s most expensive food is ‘Almas’, from the Iranian Beluga fish – 1 kg (2 lb 3 oz) of this ‘black gold’ is regularly sold for £20,000. Almas is produced from the eggs of a rare albino sturgeon between 60-100 years old, which swims in the southern Caspian Sea where there is apparently less pollution.
Pairing Cheese and Caviar
There’s a reason that you usually see caviar in a stacked application atop a fresh style of cheese—these fishy little eggs of exploding delicious goodness are best accentuated by something rich, smooth and creamy. The tried-and-true application is crème frâiche, often atop a blini, which are those cute little mini pancakes that look like they belong in a Russian dollhouse.
Smooth, creamy cheese is the perfect foil to salty, briny caviar. It works for all the same reasons that cream cheese on a bagel with lox does. A common cheese/dairy option that you’ll see is crème frâiche, as it’s inexpensive, bright and easy to spread. A little bit of lemon juice mixed in is magnifique!
Our favorite “fancy” creme fraiche pairing: Cucumber, Smoked Salmon, Vermont Creamery Crème Fraiche, Petrossian Ossetra, Dill
Want to try something different or a little more casual? Just change the vehicle in which you’re delivering the delicious caviar. One of our favorite party snacks is to do the same crème frâiche dollop, but atop a crunchy, salty chip and with a sprig of herb on top. No one can call a potato chip pretentious, after all. MFK Fisher loved chips, and so do we. Read on for details.
Our favorite “casual” crème frâiche pairing: Your favorite Potato Chip (seriously! We used Dirty Chips Original Flavor—don’t do anything too aggressively flavored!), Crème Frâiche, Petrossian Chataluga Prestige, Chives
We’re also fond of a smooth chèvre with hints of lemon (not too tangy; taste it before topping with the caviar!) or even a fresh farmer’s cheese. Cheese FAQ—chèvre and farmer’s cheese are similar fresh, soft lactic cheeses, but chèvre is always goat’s milk and farmer’s cheese is made from cow’s milk. Goat’s milk = brighter and more lemony. Farmer’s cheese = less tang, more rustic-ity and grassy notes.
Another fun pairing would be to up the cheese decadence factor and use a triple crème cheese as the base for your caviar snacking. Triple cremes are the closest that a cheese can get to butter, with a 75% fat by dry matter content. (Butter is 80%.) Layer a bit of caviar atop the cheese, and add a sprig of fresh herb (chive or dill) on top for freshness.
- Our favorite triple crème pairing: Cremeaux de Citeaux, Petrossian Royal Transmontanous, Dill
We serve this one just layered on a spoon for simplicity and elegance.
Cheese and Salmon Roe
Roe and caviar basically refer to the same thing: fish eggs. However, the term roe refers to the fish eggs (or male fish sperm) themselves while caviar is roe that has been salted or “cured” and then placed in tins or glass jars for storage and aging.
Bright orange in color and beautifully fishy, we love pairing salmon roe with an Alpine style cheese. Go for the toasted sesame notes of Gruyere Alpage Chenau (think sushi roll; it’s out there, but you’ll get it), or the roasted salmon finish of American-original Danascara, a lovely domestic sheep’s milk cheese with a buttery flavor.
- Our favorite Salmon Roe pairing: Gruyere Alpage Chenau & Petrossian Salmon Roe
Looking for more cheese and fish pairings? Check out this blog post about our canned feast of the seven fishes!
Let’s keep in mind that the best accompaniments for caviar are whatever best helps you enjoy it, and that’s a matter of personal taste. As John Burgess wrote, a spoon might be all that is needed if you love the briny taste of caviar, all by itself. We won’t bat an eyelash if you just want to splurge on a jar and go at it with a spoon. In fact, we’ll probably try and join you.
Don’t Forget The Beverages
Caviar is traditionally served with one of two classic libations: vodka or Champagne.
A venerable Russian tradition, the pairing of vodka and caviar is a timeless classic. Like wine and cheese, they are the ideal complements to one another. Served ice cold, vodka has a subtle flavor that allows the distinctive taste of caviar to prevail.
Choose a high-quality brand of vodka—if you’re splurging on caviar, it would be silly to be chintzy on the vodka—and serve it straight, but make sure it is well chilled. (Vodka can be stored in your freezer indefinitely; it won’t freeze, but it will somewhat deteriorate and develop a syrupy texture over time.) Internet research has unearthed that many jazzy, fancy restaurants will serve lemon-flavored vodkas or chilled vodka with a fresh sliver of lemon peel with caviar, for just the slightest hint of a citrusy twinge. The refreshing citrus flavor complements the caviar’s saltiness without overpowering it.
The savory saltiness of caviar loves the clean, crisp flavor of Champagne, preferably a dry, yeasty real-deal one. If bubbly wine isn’t your thing or the caviar is in a meal course where you’d like a still wine, stick with something French or French-inspired, such as Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé, Muscadet or an austere New World Chardonnay. Do not get an overly oaked wine. I repeat, Do. Not. Get. An. Overly. Oaked. Wine. Any rich, oaky wine will step all over the delicate flavor of caviar, and that would just be a darn shame.