Don't egg them on: Russians say there can be no parity on caviar

To hear the Russians tell it, it has been a very good year for caviar. But then, they will also tell you that every year is a good year for caviar - perhaps the most expensive and sought-after food on earth.

And, as any native of this country will also tell you, if it isn't Russian caviar, it really doesn't count.

What about Iranian caviar?

''Their caviar isn't as good as ours,'' says a Soviet Ministry of the Fish Industry official tersely, dismissing the rival product out of hand.

And what about Danish caviar, which sells for about one-tenth of the price of the Russian variety? He gives a momentary stare that translates into ''you've got to be kidding,'' mumbles something about the Danes ''painting'' common herring roe to make them look like higher-quality sturgeon caviar. Then, he will hear no more on the subject.

Why all this fuss over fish eggs? Purists say that if you have that attitude, you might as well call truffles ''fungus.'' To them, few things rival the taste of caviar, perhaps with a spritz of lemon juice or a bit of onion on a slice of fresh bread. It has a taste, they say, that is unrivaled: a rich, smooth savor evoking the freshness of the sea and the tang of salt air.

Now, admittedly, caviar is not to everyone's liking. But the demand is great enough, and the supply small enough, to command premium prices worldwide.

The Soviets keep secret the size of the total annual caviar catch, the amount exported, and the amount of money this country makes on the trade. But inferences can be made.

For example, officials suggest that each year 23,000 to 25,000 tons of caviar-bearing fish are harvested. The amount of caviar has varied from 4 to 6 percent of the total weight of the catch in recent years. That suggests that between 1.8 million pounds and 3 million pounds are produced annually. Only a relatively small amount of this catch is believed to be exported.

It is impossible to say how much hard currency the Soviets make from selling caviar abroad. But, with some grades of caviar going for $30 to $40 an ounce in some Western cities, it's safe to assume the earnings are not insubstantial.

The biggest customers?

Who else, mon ami, but the French?

England, West Germany, Japan, and Italy are also major buyers. By way of contrast, only about 5.5 percent of caviar sold in the United States comes from the Soviet Union.

About half the export total goes by air or refrigerated truck direct from Astrakhan, a city near the Caspian Sea in southwestern Russia. It is the most important processing center, but officials say there are ''about 15 plants'' in ''about as many cities.''

The main caviar-bearing fish, sevruga, sturgeon, and beluga, are all in the sturgeon family, and they migrate upstream to spawn. Some start in the depths of the Caspian Sea and struggle up the surging Volga River. Others make their way from the largest lake in the world, Lake Baikal in Siberia, up the treacherous reaches of myriad Siberian streams.

The Soviet Union, for some four decades, has banned fishing in the Caspian Sea to regulate the size of the catch. More recently, it has banned fishing in other areas, including spawning grounds. Thus, the only legal way to catch most caviar-bearing fish is during their annual migrations in the spring and fall, and authorities set strict quotas on the number to be caught. Poaching, however, remains a persistent problem.

The fish, too, set their own regulations. Different fish yield caviar at different ages, says an official of the Sturgeon Husbandry Research Institute.

Moreover, not every fish migrates every year. The average cycle is once every three to four years, she adds.

Further complicating things are man-made problems, notably pollution and the damming of rivers in which the fish spawn.

Beluga, for example, can grow up to 1.5 tons in weight and have been known to migrate up to 2,000 kilometers (some 1,200 miles) to spawn.

But pollution of rivers and lakes - and the damming of the Volga - took their toll in past years. During the 1960s, the total catch - and, in consequence, caviar production - slumped.

Since then, the government has toughened enforcement of environmental regulations and has created artificial spawning grounds below the dams. Those measures, along with catch quotas, have succeeded, according to government officials, and caviar production here is at a historic high.

After the fish are caught, the caviar is separated for processing. This can be done in one of several ways. Adding only salt to the roe and then canning them - resulting in so-called ''soft caviar'' - is considered the best method. The individual roe remain tender, the taste is considered the best, but there is a drawback: The shelf life is only from four to six months.

Caviar can also be pasteurized and sealed in jars. Experts say the caviar hardens up a bit - slightly impairing the taste - but can last up to two years.

The roe can also be pressed into a jelly-like consistency and frozen for even longer periods of time.

Experts caution against freezing other kinds of caviar, however, because the roe shrivel up. Further, they advise keeping caviar on ice until just before serving, because it spoils quickly at room temperature.

Are there other hints for the caviar consumer?

One is that exported Russian caviar follows a system of ''color coding'': The lid of beluga, the most expensive, is blue; sturgeon is yellow; and sevruga red.

An official notes that the ''overwhelming'' majority of Russian caviar stays inside the Soviet Union.

That, however, will come as a surprise to most Russians, since caviar, or ikra, to use the Russian word, is in scarce supply for the average Soviet citizen.

Foreigners here, as well as well-connected Soviets, usually have no problem securing it. It is fairly common to find caviar served at foreign embassy receptions in Moscow (although, it should be pointed out, it is purchased quite legally). And during sessions of this country's nominal parliament, the Supreme Soviet, open-face caviar hors d'oeuvres are available in the Kremlin's lounges for foreign diplomats and observers for only about 40 cents. These lounges are closed to the public.

For the average Russian, it is a different matter. Caviar is usually available only in restaurants - in small quantities and at high prices.

According to several accounts, one restaurant in Moscow routinely sells caviar to take home - illegally, and at twice the official price.

Theoretically, caviar should be available at state-run fish markets at the official government price of 45 rubles (about $56) a kilogram (2.2 pounds). In fact, if you walk into one and ask, as we did, for a kilogram, the person behind the counter will simply shake his head.

Well, then, where is it available, we ask?

The answer: a shrug of the shoulders, and the comment, ''I wish I knew.''

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