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ROE BY ROE

Caviar makes a romantic taste for two. Choosing an American variety ensures our stock - like our love - can endure.

The sharing of one of the world's rarest culinary luxuries often provides an indispensable boost to a burgeoning romance. Cupid's arrows have been reliably lofted for centuries with the unctuous pop and briny flavor of caviar, especially when contrasting with the yeasty effervescence of fine champagne. Beluga, sevruga, osetra - even the names sound sumptuous.

But not so fast.

In January 2006, the United Nations banned export of beluga sturgeon caviar from the Caspian Sea region. Since then the ban has been lifted, but the facts remain: beluga, stellate and Russian sturgeon face extinction unless consumers rely on other sources of roe.

It's no surprise that we've begun farming American caviar in earnest. In fact, the American caviar industry dates back to sturgeon thronging the Delaware River in the 19th century. Roe was so plentiful it was offered as a saloon snack to make customers thirstier. More recently, farmed caviar from Siberian, Russian or Iranian sturgeon stock has made great strides, winning taste tests and savvy consumers' approbation (hovering around $25 per ounce, whereas Caspian Sea goods come in at $100 an ounce).

California's Tsar Nicoulai wins plaudits for its Estate osetra, hackleback and paddlefish varieties (all available at Mazzaro Italian Market in St. Petersburg); North Carolina's Sunburst Trout is praised for its vibrant orange trout caviar (available at Wild Oats/Whole Foods in Tampa or at www.sunbursttrout.com); and mild and big-pearled Marky's Alaskan salmon roe (Fresh Market locations in Clearwater and Tampa) has numerous fans.

To put American caviar to the test you need only to take a seat at Marchand's at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort. Caviar tastings include a generous scoop of Russian sevruga and another of farmed American bowfin (both accessorized with creme fraiche, capers, red onion and light, buttery Yukon Gold blinis). The takeaway? Russian sevruga may be black gold, but the glossy black eggs and mild, ocean-breeze flavor of domestic bowfin are precious pearls indeed.

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