When Anya Zelfond was growing up in Moscow, caviar was no big whoop. ''I'm embarrassed to say this, but every week we had it," she says. ''We just got the tins, and they hung out in the refrigerator."
Then and there, caviar wasn't such a luxury, particularly for Russians. Here and now, a dozen years later and across the Atlantic, the 25-year-old Zelfond sees caviar from a different perspective, as proprietor of a tiny year-old shop in Boston that sells beluga sturgeon eggs for $140 an ounce.
Now that rampant overfishing, pollution, and poaching have pushed the ancient beluga to the edge of extinction, the United States has banned imports of Caspian and Black Sea beluga caviar, sending prices leaping as supply dwindles. It's legal to sell anything that was imported before the bans went into effect in the fall, and Zelfond's Gourmet Boutique in the Westin Copley Plaza still has some in stock. But it won't last much longer than New Year's -- high season for caviar lovers.
In this case, there's not more where that came from. That's why retailers and suppliers have been promoting caviar from other sources, including sturgeon and related species that are farmed rather than wild-caught in Europe, California, and the Midwest. Osetra and sevruga sturgeon, even from the Caspian, are slightly less threatened than beluga and not subject to the ban.
Zelfond, for one, is telling her beluga-loving customers to try golden osetra from Baku, a city in Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea. It's about $50 cheaper, which brings a 1-ounce jar to a hefty $94. At a tasting at Gourmet Boutique, the beluga was pungent, creamy, and buttery, and the golden osetra was milder and nutty -- every bit as complex but smoother by a mile.
''It's hard to get the beluga guys to even try the osetra," she says. ''They're like, 'Oh, it's osetra.' And I say, 'Well, it's not just any osetra.' If we started everyone off with this, I don't think anyone would ever even ask for beluga again."
Environmentalists such as those at Caviar Emptor, a coalition of conservation groups, say it's probably only a matter of time before the smaller osetra and sevruga sturgeons face a similar crisis to the beluga, which the group says has lost 90 percent of its population in only 20 years. Caviar Emptor is enlisting such chefs as Jacques Pepin to help call for consumers to buy caviar varieties from sturgeon and paddlefish farmed in the United States.
''The future of caviar has to be as a sustainable product," says John Boyajian, whose Canton-based company, Boyajian, withdrew from the caviar industry last year because of the Caspian beluga devastation. Boyajian is mulling a return to caviar, but only when he finds something with quality and sustainability he can support. He likes the Sterling brand produced by Stolt Sea Farm in Sacramento from white sturgeon, but Stolt has already aligned itself with the renowned Petrossian Inc. of New York City. ''There's no point in trying to do something that somebody else is already doing," says Boyajian.
Stolt sells eggs from its white sturgeon, in three categories of quality and at $56 to $70 an ounce, through its website and that of Petrossian, which also sells it at Whole Foods Markets in the Boston area.
''First of all, the taste is great," says Michel Emery, director of sales at Petrossian. ''It's a very clean caviar, and well balanced. People are becoming more and more conscious about trying to go with a product that will be sustainable."
That's what drew restaurateurs such as Tim Partridge at Perdix and Jody Adams at Rialto to a Spanish caviar being distributed by Seafood Specialties of South Boston. RioFrio caviar is named for the river in southern Spain where the company raises sturgeon in such a way that it has earned organic certification. Even though the sturgeon is not the same species as beluga sturgeon, the caviar carries a beluga certification by CITES, an international trade convention that sets fishing quotas for environmental protection.
''CITES is trying to simplify things for the consumer," says Seafood Specialties owner Chris Edelman. ''The terminology beluga, osetra, sevruga has become a quality grade, not just a species description."
At a tasting at the Beacon Hill location of Savenor's Market, the exclusive retailer for the caviar in this area, RioFrio president Fernando Domezain showed the vacuum seal on the caviar, which is packed first into glass jars rather than into tins. Then he demonstrated how to taste it: Using a plastic spoon (metal would affect the flavor), he scooped a teaspoon's worth from the edge of the jar to the center so as not to break any of the eggs. Then he plopped them on the back of his hand so he could easily inspect them, rubbed a few between his fingers to make sure the oil would quickly dissipate, then gobbled them all down.
To a caviar novice, it tasted mild, slightly briny, and bright -- not as creamy as the Caspian beluga, not as complex as the osetra, and with a firmer texture. Domezain, Edelman, and store proprietor Ron Savenor say the texture is a selling point, even at $250 for a 2-ounce jar. To Zelfond, who says she tasted RioFrio when Edelman brought her a sample, the texture is a deal breaker.
''I don't want to be a snob, but I can't carry it in my store," Zelfond said in a phone interview. ''The eggs are really hard, almost chewy. I wanted to bring it in, because Chris, the importer, is such a nice guy, but I just couldn't offer it to my customers. The quality is just not there."
Gourmet Boutique does carry some US-produced caviar, including paddlefish and hackleback, but both are from wild, not farmed, fish. Zelfond's husband, Greg Presayzen, who is from St. Petersburg, is a bigger fan of the US caviar than she is, but both say the quality has vastly improved.
At the tasting there, the paddlefish ($25 an ounce) was saltier than osetra or beluga, with a flavor that more quickly tapered off and ended with some bitterness. It was fine when wrapped with creme fraiche in Zelfond's homemade blini, but harder to compare favorably to the Caspian or Spanish caviars when eaten on its own out of a mother-of-pearl spoon. Nonetheless, the couple is charitable: The US caviar may not be as good as Russian, ''but it's a great replacement for what you're paying," Zelfond says.
Besides, rankings don't always make sense, especially since what some find bitter others find intriguing. ''Each caviar has its own personality," Presayzen says.
And each batch is different, his wife adds: ''It's like a pearl. No two pearls are the same, unless they're processed."
Joe Yonan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.