"Go ahead, eat as much as you can." Armen Petrossian, the patriarch of the firm whose name is synonymous with one of the world’s most famously decadent foods, wasn’t kidding. Dressed in a bow tie and white lab coat, he had just pried open several kilo-size tins of caviar in the tasting room at Petrossian’s headquarters in an industrial park outside Paris. Osetra, sevruga, and beluga glistened golden brown to satiny black under the bright lights. I dug in, churning through a series of little wooden sticks, each mouthful of cured sturgeon roe a distinctive mix of salty and nutty, creamy and even fruity, as the eggs popped against my palate. “It’s not always the most beautiful color that’s the most delicious; it’s the taste and texture of the egg,” said Armen, keeping pace as he passed bite after bite under his gray handlebar mustache. But despite his insistence that I keep going, I eventually tapped out.
Learning I had a limit on caviar wasn’t the most surprising thing about that morning. It was the discovery that Petrossian isn’t, as I’d always imagined, part of some massive European luxury conglomerate. Rather, for nearly 100 years, it has essentially remained a mom-and-pop operation, ever since Armen’s father, Mouchegh, and uncle, Melkoum, fled the Armenian genocide to start a new life in France, in 1920. Back home, not far from the sturgeon-rich Caspian Sea, caviar wasn’t exactly an everyday dish—it was consumed mainly by elites—but in France, already the gastronomic capital of the world, it was virtually unknown. "It took them a good couple of years to convince people about it," says Alexandre Petrossian, Armen’s son and a managing director of the company in the U.S. His grandfather and great-uncle used some of the traditional foods they left behind—smoked salmon, pickled herring—to bring crowds through the door, eventually turning to the Ritz and the French luxury cruise line that built the S.S. Normandie to spread the word. Today, Petrossian’s teal-blue Left Bank épicerie is still at the original address, 18 boulevard de La Tour-Maubourg in the 7th arrondissement, where Armen’s wife, Cécile, presides over the 10 modest tables and the staff, many of whom have been with the family for decades.
I always drop by the shop when I’m in Paris. This spring, I met my friend, the photographer Oddur Thorisson, there for lunch, and we devoured piles of smoked salmon (from the Petrossian smokehouse in Angers, about 180 miles southwest of Paris), Russian potato salad, pâté en croûte, potato galette—and caviar, of course. We picked a bottle of Bollinger La Grande Année from the Champagne list and, eventually, added a few glasses of cold Petrossian vodka to the tab. Sometimes Cécile will pack up a picnic of caviar, blini, gravlax, and other accompagnements for the train ride to my house in Bordeaux. But just as often, at one of the Petrossian kiosks at Charles de Gaulle or LAX, I’ll just grab a 30-gram tin of osetra and a bag of chips to make flying coach a bit more glamorous. A little caviar does go a long way.
"The best caviar is served directly from tin to mouth," says Alexandre Petrossian. "Extras like eggs, capers, and crème fraîche just hide the flavor." Where to begin? His advice is simple: Don't be intimidated by names, and buy what tastes good to you. "One of my favorites right now is Kaluga Huso Hybrid from China," Petrossian says. "It’s not too strong, not too salty, with a balanced palate. Then you have the osetra, beautiful large eggs that are a little more nutty and a dark brown color with jade accents. I also like the Daurenki: Its very floral, large eggs are delicious." While beluga has a rep as the best, you’ll have to go to Paris to buy it. "It’s been banned in the U.S. since 2005," Petrossian says with a sigh.