'Tis the season to create memories with family and friends. For those of us with tenure in restaurants, the heart of winter symbolizes a season of celebration measured by tins of caviar, grams of truffles and bottles of champagne.
According to the Nielson Co., three times as much champagne is sold in the month of December than in any other month. When choosing a delicacy to indulge in with your champagne, why not go for the ultimate pairing - caviar?
Thomas Salamunovich, owner of Larkspur Restaurant in Vail, reminisced about his first experience with caviar.
"When I was a young cook working with Wolfgang Puck in California, I put a tiny teaspoon of caviar on top of a blini and he (Wolfgang) said to me 'If you are going to give them caviar, give them caviar!' We did, and the guest left with a lasting memory."
A caviar primer
The problem is that there are many different types of caviar to choose from and confusing jargon. So how do you know what to select?
Some excellent species are Ossetra, Sevruga, Alverta and Transmontanus, and Siberian caviars. Ossetra is golden brown in color and has a fresh, fruity grain with a distinctive nutty tone. Sevruga is grey and is a smaller bead that bursts with an intense, robust flavor of the sea. The Alverta and Transmontanus caviars are the most similar to Ossetra. Siberian caviar is grey to golden brown and has smaller grains with a more subtle, woodsy flavor.
Ancient Greeks served "Avyron," the Turks their prized "Khavyr," even the Phoenicians, Egyptians and Romans salted and pickled sturgeon eggs. The Persians, however, were the first to consume sturgeon eggs from the plentiful Caspian Sea. Soon after, caviar made its appearance at the Russian court and was quick to become a favorite of the Czars.
By the end of the 19th century, caviar was appearing in saloons as a salty treat to promote beer consumption. The Hudson River teamed with the 15-foot giant sturgeons, making the presence of caviar commonplace.
In the 1920s the Parisian table brought prestige and exclusivity back to caviar. The Bolshevik Revolution created a new population of royalty, aristocrats and intellectuals living in exile; the Petrossian house had an opportunity to revolutionize caviar once again.
The Petrossian brothers have been providing these beautiful delicacies from the Caspian Sea for nearly 90 years. As the tradition of excellence continued, Petrossian became the first major distributor to work with sturgeon farms to provide the world with sustainable caviar sources that could stand up to wild Beluga, Sevruga and Ossetra. Petrossian allows the sturgeon to age instead of pulling the fish as soon as they reach biological maturity, thus allowing a fuller bodied flavor profile. It is necessary for the world to turn to farmed caviar, as the wild Caspian fish is facing extinction. Production of wild Caspian caviar ceased in 2009 so instead the restaurant world has relied upon Israeli farmed production.
Ossetra has a firmer texture than its relative, Beluga, however many connoisseurs prefer it. At Larkspur Restaurant, Petrossian Royal Ossetra is available to guests; it is presented to the guest in a sculpted dish made entirely of ice and all the pomp and circumstance that the delicacy deserves.
'The diamond of the kitchen'
If fish eggs aren't the "once in a lifetime" that you are searching for, then most chefs would urge their guest to indulge in one of the most celebrated gastronomic pleasures on earth: truffles. While there are many exceptional truffle products available, truffle oils, salts, flours, and even vodka, there ain't nothing like the real thing. Available for only a few short weeks, the White Alba truffles from the Piedmont region of Italy have long been the favorite truffle of chefs around the world. Their flavor is sweet with a hint of sharp earth. Mikuni Wild Harvest, company that distributes the truffles, describes the aroma as being "like cream soda with a definitively unique bouquet that will delicately perfume and flavor everything it encounters." The Black Perigord Truffle, also only available in the winter months, is more pungent and earthy, oddly reminiscent of boot leather.
Richard Hinojosa, executive chef at Larkspur, has been talking with Mikuni for two months, trying to determine where, when and how much to buy of each of these truffles this year. The market fluctuates drastically for these subterranean mushrooms. Hunted for by female pigs and trained truffle dogs, they are usually found near oak trees and the shelf life is extremely limited. When the truffle order is finally placed and they at last arrive, Hinojosa is like a little boy.
"It feels like Christmas, opening the package, even though they aren't for me, they are for our guests," he said. "I can smell them when the FedEx guy walks in the back door."
A Larkspur, truffles are thinly sliced to order, tableside, on top of either handmade pasta, or a very neutral flavored risotto. Most chefs agrees that both of these dishes allow the natural flavor of the truffles to shine and serve as vessels for carrying the musky and savory flavors to the palate.
French gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called truffles "the diamond of the kitchen." He said that in the early 1800s, yet in the minds of many modern day chefs, it still holds true.
Cheryl Liedke is a freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur Restaurant, located at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999. Visit www.larkspurvail.com.