A kind of kitchen-laboratory room in the time-honoured house of the Altona Caviar Import House, AKI for short, in Hamburg. The small group of visitors had previously put on the hood and protective coat and passed a hygiene disinfection lock. Now it is awfully quiet when AKI boss Markus Rüsch removes the rubber band from a powerful 1.8 kg can, taps the sheet metal lid with a knife and then carefully lifts it off. Then he is exposed, the caviar cake, shimmering black, slightly oily on the surface, which flatters the eyes of the viewer. Around three months old, caviar from a white sturgeon, seasoned with only four per cent salt, which has been swimming in a German breeding pond near Fulda for about ten years.
Markus Rüsch takes a mother-of-pearl spoon and says: “If it crackles now, it’s good. Do you hear that? ”In fact, there is a clear crackle when the small mother-of-pearl spoon pierces the previously untouched surface of the caviar for the first time and carries out a small group of shiny black pearls.
Caviar has been traded here in Altona since 1925. Markus Rüsch took over the company from his father and grew up with caviar, so to speak. The company is still family-owned. A production facility with cold storage, bottling and everything that goes with it has long been established outside of Hamburg. But despite all the economic irrationality, Rüsch does not want to give up the location in the old town, too much emotion and history are stationed here. “My great aunt delivered the caviar by bike from here.”
Markus Rüsch draws on family-related knowledge from the subject. He not only sells tons of caviar to bulk buyers like other dealers or airlines with an excessive need for fish eggs in first class, he also likes to talk about him. For example onboard the European luxury cruise ship, where exclusive caviar seminars are part of the coveted culinary supporting program.
“The fish need between five and twenty years to mature. Spawning maturity means cash. Good sensor technology takes time. We already have a certain contradiction.”
Markus Rüsch is about to open the next tin can. “Sometimes the cans open badly. My father always said there was someone in there. “Once again, the grain-smooth surface shows a great grain structure. And here, too, the caviar crackles.
A clean mirror that shines in the light, an absolutely even surface structure – that’s how you imagine it. A wonderful picture. You could even tip the can and the “cake” would remain stable for now. The fact that the side wall of the can is a little dirty does not bother, the oily film even supports the vacuum created during packing.
The second sample at the table is caviar from a Siberian sturgeon from France. “The seal on a can tells you where the caviar comes from, how old it is, etc.” Caviar from Iran, the former market leader in game products, is very rare. “And if it does, it doesn’t come from the Caspian Sea, but from a farm nearby. Can be good, but it doesn’t have to be. ”
After the crackle comes the smell. The smell: almost meaty, greasy, intense. Some also recognize liver sausage in it, at least rich in nuances. No trace of fish smell, not even a hint of metal.
Try it now: take a small mother-of-pearl spoon and best prick some caviar out of the middle of the can and put the sample on the back of your hand. You can, of course, eat it straight from the spoon or, as Rüsch recommends, also with bread and butter.
When caviar is completely fresh, it is quite sticky, really “sticky”. Caviar is usually soft without a certain delicacy in the grain when it has been stored for a long time. When pasteurizing it would become hard-shelled and can be stored for a long time, but at least you don’t want the former. Fresh, optimally matured caviar fascinates with its fine smoothness, compactness and butteriness.
Spooning out of the large original can is an incomparable archaic pleasure. And of course, you should also know: once opened, the caviar does not get better, but gradually loses. “It would be best to pack fresh caviar in jars with a vacuum lid. But unfortunately, most customers believe that it will then be pasteurized and inferior – this is how the Russians used to do it, and this prejudice can hardly be removed. “
Which product is actually the best caviar is subjective and subject to discussion. “Most customers have no detailed knowledge of caviar. They do not notice if it is average, but they do notice if they eat very good caviar because it tastes good, simply meets the ideal and you discover the product. Everyone has their own personal taste desires when it comes to caviar, and you can also fulfil them. If someone thinks that he particularly prefers mild caviar, then I don’t even need to come with the most expressive goods from French breeding. Then the next one comes and kisses our feet because for him it tastes like in the old wild times. That is why I am so glad that we are not caviar producers, but caviar dealers. We simply choose the best for ourselves and our customers. “
The producers and customers are scattered across the globe. “Everything that is on the market today is between three and eight months old. I think that’s fresh and optimally matured. In the past, we used the game from the Caspian Sea to trade in caviar that was between 18 and 24 months old. We had to put in the customer’s mouth that this wonderful bitter aroma tastes great… ”
The larger the grain, the more salt it can tolerate, “because the caviar will then appear a bit milder”. This is especially true for grain sizes from 3.5 to 4 mm, such as those found in the Beluga. The grain size is both genetic and random. “It has little to do with age. Because how big should the eggs of a 100-year-old beluga be? ”Salting is usually done with normal salt. All of the special salts may be a good story to tell, but they have no effect on the taste. Decades ago, the Russians defined “malossol”, in German “mildly salted”, as the standard. That means 3.5 to 4 per cent salt. Sometimes boric acid is added because of the shelf life extension. This is actually highly toxic but is the only approved preservative approved by the authorities. The maximum allowed dose is four per thousand.
Caviar with an impressively firm grain often comes from China. In particular, the hybrid breed Schrenckii dauricus, a cross between Acipenser schrenckii (Amur Sturgeon) and Huso dauricus (Beluga sturgeon), brings large-grain caviar with a mild nutty taste and an attractive green-brownish shade that is reminiscent of gold-coloured Beluga but comes from a fish that spawns quite quickly. A product type that has already won an a la carte caviar tasting under the name “Mandarin Imperial”. “The Chinese really do that very brilliantly,” says Markus Rüsch with respect. In fact, the mouthfeel is terrific. Consistency, bite, everything fine, very clean and impeccable. Only the last bit of aroma is missing, which other products with large grain and certain drowsiness still have.
The impressive China goods also taste good for first-class catering customers who consume tons of them. Once again Markus Rüsch does not like to rate taste questions and prefers to say it with an old saying: “For every dog, there is a leash …”
Even if the color of the caviar has little influence on the taste, for many gold-grey the most desirable is the look. That is why Beluga is the caviar among caviar. Large grain, butter-nut flavour and moderate salting make it state-of-the-art. A beluga needs at least twenty years to mature in aquaculture. Beluga is also happy to be crossed with the Siberian sturgeon. This can result in perfect goods, for which 10,000 euros are sometimes called up for the kilo in purchasing. How lucky that very good caviar is in circulation for a fifth of the price.
During the tasting, you either drink Blanc-de-blanc champagne, Markus Rüsch also recommends a Hamburg Ratsherrn beer because of the tannins and to cleanse the taste buds.
The only thing that is impossible to enjoy is to eat caviar with a metal spoon, they say. It has been maturing traditionally and perfectly in metal cans for hundreds of years. But what is really not possible is silver cutlery, because there is evil-tasting oxidation. “Mother-of-pearl cutlery,” says Rüsch, “is simple to the touch and more pleasant to eat. Otherwise, the rule for me is: better to have good caviar with a metal spoon than a bad one with mother-of-pearl.”