Have you stocked up on Champagne for New Year's Eve? Fine, now it's time to turn your attention to caviar. Technically, caviar is just another name for the salted roe of spawning fish, but in the world of gourmet foodstuffs, there are some definite distinctions. In this rarefied atmosphere, caviar means sturgeon roe; specifically, the varieties of sturgeon that are found in Russia's Black and Caspian seas. That would be beluga, osetra and sevruga sturgeon.
(Russians also covet their native salmon caviar, which is not to be confused with American salmon caviar or American sturgeon caviar or even American golden caviar, which is just a fancy name for whitefish roe. Got all that?)
To simplify, here's a primer for that triumvirate of Russian caviars. Beluga is generally considered to be the best (and most expensive) and is known for its dark gray color and large, sturdy eggs. Osetra eggs are smaller and brown-gray in color (some have a golden tint) and have a more pronounced taste. And finally there's sevruga, the least expensive of the Russian sturgeon choices, which is known for its tiny, crisp eggs in a dark gray to black color.
It also helps to know:
* Varieties that include the word malossol, which means "little salt" in Russian, are considered superior.
* Unopened containers can be refrigerated for several weeks, but they should be stored on crushed ice, changing the ice as needed.
* Caviar should not be served in metal containers, which will turn black and affect the taste of the caviar.
* An ounce per person is considered the "correct" amount to offer guests. As the folks at Sutton Place Gourmet say, "Anything less than an ounce per person is a tease!"
* Retailers promise that they've rid their shelves of all caviar distributed by U.S. Caviar & Caviar, a Rockville-based importer indicted recently on charges of mislabeling American caviar as Russian imports.
* Ordering ahead of time ensures you'll get what you want.
Here are some local resources for fresh Russian and American caviars:
ARROWINE sells the Connoisseur brand of osetra ($29.99 per ounce), with special orders taken for beluga ($59.99) and sevruga ($27.99), as well as for larger sizes of all three varieties. Creme fraiche, a typical accompaniment, is also available. (4508 Lee Hwy., Arlington; call 703-525-0990.)
BRADLEY FOOD AND BEVERAGE stocks Connoisseur caviar, including sevruga ($26 per ounce), osetra ($35) and beluga ($50) as well as fresh American sturgeon caviar ($18 per ounce) and a number of choices from Romanoff, the granddaddy of American pasteurized (i.e., needs no refrigeration) caviar. (6904 Arlington Rd., Bethesda; call 301-654-6966.)
CANNON SEAFOOD sells Russian beluga ($63 per ounce), fresh American caviar in four-ounce containers ($55) and can order other sizes and varieties. (1065 31st St. NW, call 202-337-8366; 762-A Walker Rd., Great Falls; call 703-759-4950.)
COSTCO sells Caspian Star's sevruga ($22.59/1.75 ounces) and beluga ($44.99/1.75 ounces) Available at Costco.
DEAN & DELUCA carries primarily varieties from Petrossian, considered to be one of the best importers of Russian caviar. Sevruga ($35), osetra ($45) and beluga ($70) are sold in sizes ranging from 30-gram containers (1 ounce equals 28 grams) to 1-kilo (2.2-pound) containers ($940 to $1,850). Serving dishes and utensils also available. (3276 M St. NW; call 202-342-2500; www.dean-deluca.com)
EATZI'S has sevruga ($22 per ounce), osetra ($25) and beluga ($40) as well as American paddlefish roe ($19 per ounce) and salmon caviar ($5 for 2 ounces). Good selection of serving gear also available. (11503-B Rockville Pike, Rockville; call 301-816-2020.)
FRESH FIELDS sells various sizes of Russian caviar including sevruga ($29 per ounce), osetra ($29) and beluga ($40) as well as a number of American choices. Available at Fresh Fields.
GIANT/SOMEPLACE SPECIAL sells 1-ounce containers of sevruga ($18.95), osetra ($21.95) and beluga ($42.95) as well as a number of fresh American varieties. (1445 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean; call 703-448-0800.)
SUTTON PLACE GOURMET is another Petrossian source, with prices ranging from $39 for a 30-gram container of sevruga to $570 for 250 grams of beluga. Available at Sutton Place Gourmet.
TRADER JOE'S may have the best price around for Connoisseur's sevruga ($15.99 per ounce), a limited amount of beluga ($35 per ounce) and other choices including Icelandic caviar ($1.99/3.5 ounces) and American salmon roe ($1.49/2 ounces). Available at Trader Joe's.