Eggs, Shells & Truffles
A Connoisseur’s Guide
Man has almost always delighted in culinary delicacies — foods held in the highest regard for rarity and price, especially caviar, oysters and truffles.
If you are not a seasoned connoisseur of this gourmet triple threat, but would like to be, consider this your Guide to Delicacies 101.
The term caviar refers to the salted eggs of sturgeon – a fish that, ironically, co-existed with and outlived dinosaurs, but is today endangered because of caviar’s massive overharvesting. Eggs from fish other than sturgeon are technically called roe, not caviar. Persians were the first to cultivate caviar from the Caspian and Black seas; however, Russians have historically shown the most zeal for it – so much so that Czar Nicholas II in the late 1800s ordered fishermen to pay taxes in the form of caviar.
Caviar purveyors age the fish eggs for up to four weeks in brine. Otherwise it would pretty much have no taste. Consider these varieties:
• Beluga: The most treasured grade of caviar, this buttery, pea-sized sturgeon caviar is shiny, soft and comes in shades of silver, gray and black. In the center of each Beluga sphere is a black spot called the “eye.” This is the actual egg; the rest is the sac.
• Osetra: This form of caviar, also sturgeon, consists of medium-sized gray or brown eggs. It has a nutty flavor and is the next best choice in caviar if Beluga isn’t an option.
• Sevruga: These smaller gray eggs, also a type of sturgeon, have the strongest salty flavor.
• Sterlet: The small golden eggs of this sturgeon caviar were once the revered choice of royalty. But even if you have the bucket-load of cash to buy it, you’re not likely to find it. It’s all but extinct.
• American: The roe of a Mississippi paddlefish, these eggs are a distant cousin of sturgeon. However, it has an earthy, muddy flavor.
• Lumpfish: This tiny roe, often dyed red or black, is a popular and less costly variety.
• Rainbow Trout caviar: Smaller than salmon roe, these small orange eggs are mild and less salty. It’s the least expensive, but has a pleasant flavor.
• Salmon: Orange or red in color, salmon roe is most often substituted for more costly sturgeon forms.
• Tarama: Often sold smoked, this orange-red roe comes from carp.
• Whitefish: This small, golden roe, found in the Great Lakes, has less complex flavors, giving it more versatility as an ingredient.
Known as an aphrodisiac, Romans so loved oysters, they’d import them from England and plump them up in saltwater baths by feeding them bread and wine.
Colonial settlers ate them not by the dozen, but by the gross – 144 at a sitting. Even Abe Lincoln was a fan. History books say he’d throw parties at his home, with oysters as the only food.
• Atlantic Oysters: This variety includes Bluepoints (from Long Island’s Great South Bay), Wellfleets (from the Cape Cod area),
Malpeques and Beaufoleils. They comprise most of the oysters gathered in the United States. (1)
• European Flats: Not surprisingly, these oysters have a flat, smooth shell, with a mineral, seaweed taste and a meaty texture. Belons are a type of European Flats raised in the Brittany region of France. (2)
• Kumamoto Oysters: With a deep, bowl-shaped shell, these small oysters have a nutty, sweet flavor. They are most often cultivated in Japan and the West Coast of the United States. (3)
• Pacific Oysters: These small, sweet oysters are the most widely cultivated oyster. Their shell shape is fluted with a sharp point. Common types are Fanny Bay, Totten Inlet, Hog Island or Sweetwater. (4)
• Olympia Oysters: Only about an inch in width, Olympia oysters are the only oyster native to the United States’ West Coast. Their popularity during the Gold Rush nearly extinguished them.
Today, they are highly protected and mostly raised in Puget Sound and British Columbia. (5)
Ounce for ounce, truffles – a tuber-like underground mushroom – are more costly than diamonds. European white truffles can bring $3,600 a pound. In 2013, a two-pound truffle sold for a sum higher than $300,000.Why so much? Because they can’t be authentically cultivated. They grow randomly, usually near the roots of shady oak trees, and they must be sniffed out seasonally by trained dogs or swine. Flooding or other harsh weather can deplete a season’s crop. It’s no wonder there is said to be a black market truffle mafia, or that chefs who invest in them store them in a locked safe to protect them from being stolen.
• Winter Black Truffle: The most coveted and costly of truffles, the winter black variety, with its soft “chocolate and earth” smell is gathered primarily in Italy, France and Spain. They grow beneath shady oak, elm, poplar, hazelnut and chestnut trees, ready for harvesting between November and March. Generally, winter black truffles weigh 2-3 ounces and have a dark gray to brown exterior with white veins on the inside. (1)
• Winter White Truffle: Praised for its garlic-like flavor, the musky-smelling winter white truffle is actually yellow. Most often, they’re grown in Northern and Central Italy, but they can also be found in other parts of Europe, such as Croatia. The key disadvantage to white truffles compared to their black counterparts is that their aroma fades more quickly. When truffles are shaved or sliced open, they give off a gas, which provides the special aroma. When cooked, the aroma disappears quickly, so white truffles are generally shaved fresh over dishes. (2)
• Summer Black Truffle: Also called the St. Jean Truffle, the summer black truffle season runs from May to August. It resembles the winter black truffle, with its knobby round exterior, but the inside flesh is a grayish yellow. This variety of truffle isn’t as sought after as the white truffle, but it’s still delicious, and cooking it enhances the chocolaty, earthy flavor. (3)
• Summer White Truffle: Not quite as aromatic as its winter counterpart, the summer white truffle is usually preferred over the summer black truffle. It’s harvested in the same regions of Italy –
Tuscany, Piedmont and Marche – is more plentiful and, as a result, less pricey, with a sweet garlicky flavor. (4)
If sampling caviar, oysters and truffles is a new endeavor for you, consider first tasting them at a fine restaurant where an educated staff can further guide you to varieties best suited
to your personal palate. For restaurant recommendations, visit www.SouthFloridaOpulence.com.