‘Pearls of luxury’

Written by Seymour Topping

I confess to a lust for Beluga caviar — the choicest of pickled sturgeon roe, or eggs. On those rare occasions when my wife, Audrey and I indulge in the delicacy — whose limited production and sale is guided by the Beluga sturgeon’s endangered status — we recall with nostalgia an odd time when I consumed the precious stuff  by the handful. 

The story begins in November 1946, when I served as a correspondent for the International  News Service based in Peking, now Beijing, covering the civil war between the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek and the People’s Liberation Army of Mao Zedong. With the Nationalists retreating before Mao’s Communist onslaught, I flew north to Changchun in Manchuria, the Nationalist-held former capital of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. The city, which had been designed by the Japanese to imitate some features of Washington, D.C., was in ruins, having been looted by Chinese mobs before the Nationalists took over. When I landed, it was under heavy Communist siege. I covered the ground and air battle until Christmas Eve when I headed south on the last train before the city fell. On the train, loaded with Nationalist troops, my companions in a coach compartment were Vladimir Drozdov — who worked for the Russian Daily News in Shanghai, serving the White Russian community that had fled the Soviet regime, and Jules Joelson, a rather nervous correspondent for the Agence France-Presse. Not long out of Changchun, our train jolted to a halt. We were told that Communist guerrillas had blown up the tracks, but not to worry, the rails would soon be repaired. We sat waiting in our compartment in subzero temperatures without food, growing hungrier as the hours passed. Then I noticed a paper sack, which Joelson held close at his side. When I inquired about it, he admitted that he had been to Harbin, a city not far from the Russian border, and, as ordered by his wife, was returning to Peking with a large pot of the finest black Beluga caviar, which he had purchased in a White Russian shop. Yielding to our piteous whimpers for food, Jules reluctantly opened the jar and placed it among us. We dipped into it, greedily eating the caviar by the handful, emptying the whole container. After 14 hours, the train moved on to the next large city, Mukden, where I spent the holiday dining out with Drozdov in the superb White Russian restaurants. Satiated, we did not order caviar.

But in the next years, my lust for caviar took hold. Audrey and I were lucky to indulge in the  “Pearls of Luxury” once again when The New York Times posted me to Moscow for a three-year reporting tour.  Although fresh meat and vegetables, except for potatoes and cabbage, were hard to find, there was no shortage of Beluga caviar in the Soviet capital, especially at the National Day celebrations and in the Kremlin banquet halls. Our four children also acquired such a yearning for caviar that Audrey and I were forced to sate our passion for the delicious fish eggs in secret.

When we eventually returned to New York, we found  there was a greater variety of rare Russian caviars with strange names in Manhattan than in Moscow, but at a far greater price. Here is an example of what Manhattan’s Caviar Russe restaurant recently offered — Caspian Sea Platinum at $345 per ounce and Caspian Sea Gold at $295 per ounce.

Perhaps this is as it should be for a food, dating from 1240, that was once a religious dish made by Russian Orthodox monks and prized by the czars. During production, the ripe fish eggs are separated from the ovaries by passing through a mesh screen before being salted.  The three most valuable types of caviar are Beluga, Ossetra and Sevruga — from the wild sturgeons of the Caspian and Black seas. Ossetra ranges in color from dark brown to gray and has a unique taste of hazelnuts. Sevruga, the least expensive and therefore most popular, ranges from light to dark gray.

But the rarest and most prized caviar is created by the Beluga, a sturgeon dating from prehistoric times. In the Caspian, Belugas can live for 100 years and grow as long as a pickup truck. The largest on record weighed 4,570 pounds and stretched 28 feet long.

Now that was one caviar mama!

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