For almost a century Petrossian of Paris has supplied some of the world’s finest caviar; Food and Travel Arabia went for a visit.
As you step into the Petrossian shop on Boulevard de Latour Maubourg, in Paris, not far from the Eiffel Tower, you can’t help noticing a subtle smell of the sea. The room is filled with this very light scent of caviar and high quality salmon mixed together.
But there is something else. It’s not actually a scent? It’s more like a feeling, a sensation. After having lingered over this “something else” for a moment it finally springs into my mind what it is. It’s a sensation of history, it’s the feeling of having come to a historic place. Because here, only a five minutes walk from the Seine, you’ll find a shop that opened for the first time back in 1920 and that – as the very first shop in Paris – started to sell fine selections of some very special fish eggs, that since then have gained world fame –caviar.
Almost a century of age
However, the story of France’s – and one of the world’s – most famous producers of caviar is also a story about Russian immigration. Many Russians fled their country due to the Russian Revolution in 1917. Two of these were the Armenian brothers, from Baku, Mouchegh and Melkoum Petrossian. In Russia their family was part of the upper class where caviar was a favourite, and where French was frequently spoken. It was therefore a natural choice to escape to France. Here they found a country that had everything … except caviar. The French people did not know the taste of caviar, neither did they have any knowledge as regards how to deal with the “producer” of caviar, the sturgeon. So in a certain way, a double challenge was awaiting the Armenian brothers.
“Today, when people hear that we started our business back in 1920 they very often think that I represent the third or perhaps even the fourth generation of the Petrossian-family. But we are actually quite long-lived, so I’m only the second generation. My husband, Armen, is the son of Mouchegh, one of the two founding brothers”, says Cécile Petrossian with a gentle smile as she shows me around the store and tells me about the luxury produce.
“Speaking about sturgeon is not simple, due to the fact that there are many different kinds of this wonderful fish. Each of them carries eggs that have particular characteristics and a different taste. We actually differentiate the caviar according to the species of the sturgeon; just as you differentiate types of grape that are grown to make wine. To reach a top product you have to consider things like the selection of the best eggs and the time of maturation. In fact, when we receive the caviar, we don’t sell it immediately. It has to go through a maturation process, which is specific for each kind of caviar. That’s the important know-how that Petrossian puts into the final product”, Cécile explains me.
Throughout time caviar has gained fame due to its high cost – even more than the most expensive truffles. The basic price of Beluga caviar is around $2,700 per kilo, but it’s possible to pay $26,000 per kilo for the ivory coloured eggs of a century old Beluga sturgeon!
“Our high-end product is the famous Special Reserve Huso-Huso caviar. A 30g costs $415, and a ½ kilo can is $6,900! Yes, it is expensive, but it is without doubt one of the finest and most precious foods on earth. We are talking about the rare Huso-Huso sturgeon, a really majestic fish, that is farmed on the banks of the Danube”, Cécile tells me.
Caviar has long obtained it’s pet name “gastronomy’s diamonds” due to these impressive prices. But what about the financial crisis, has it affected the consumption of caviar?
“Yes, of course we have been affected, but only to a certain extent. The people who love caviar continue to buy, but perhaps in smaller quantities compared to previously. Then here in Paris, where we have many high-class and sophisticated restaurants, there is a constant demand, due to caviar’s image and being a luxurious ingredient in various dishes. This hasn’t changed a bit”, she explains and adds: “We usually say that when you offer caviar to someone, it’s a message of respect and affection”.
Today, the huge demand for caviar means that many of the 30 species of sturgeon are endangered. This has brought the biggest producers – such as Petrossian – to breed the fish in farms around the world. The Petrossian caviar farms are based in USA Bulgaria, China, Israel, Germany and France.
“We have a caviarologue, a caviar expert, who visits all the different farms. We have a special Petrossian guide that all the producers must follow to become exclusive suppliers to Petrossian. This is extremely important because only in this way can we maintain the highest quality of our produce”, says Cécile Petrossian.
If you make a comparison between the caviar from wild sturgeons and the farm bred ones you will not find a big difference, especially if you compare the roe from the same species at the same age.
But how do you actually eat the caviar?
“First of all it must be served cold. You can eat it with a small spoon or simply on a cracker, which should not have a strong flavor. If you want to be more sophisticated and add a bit of colour you can also add some fresh herbs as long as they are not too strong”, Cécile says with a smile.
I have reached the pinnacle of my visit: The Tasting. Four types of caviar are lined up in front of me; the colours of the four varieties are slightly different as are the flavors, but each has an intense luxurious taste.
I must admit, that I will probably never become a regular purchaser of large quantities of caviar. But one thing is for sure: a small spoon of caviar on a piece of toast, and a cold drink is practically the perfect way to start your day!