Caviar bumps, explained

Caviar Bumps, explained | Soho House

Food writer Maggie Hennessy explores the cheeky new consumption style and what it’s all about

Saturday 24 September 2022 By Maggie Hennessy

‘OK, make a fist and spoon some caviar onto the V part of your hand, between your index finger and thumb,” instructs Sarah Michaelson, CEO and president of Roe Caviar. I’m getting a Zoom caviar bumping lesson from her and the brand’s head of operations, Cacey Madden. 

After a series of video crashes that smack palpably of 2020, the three of us gesture our fists –piled with sustainably farmed California white sturgeon caviar – towards our screens with a ‘Cheers!’, then eat the glistening, olive-hued heaps off our hands.  

‘Roll it around a little and feel it pop on your tongue,’ says Michaelson. The little beads burst in quick succession, filling my mouth with briny, nutty, and pleasantly earthy liquid. It’s intoxicating, if a little naughty, to eat caviar this way, even if you’re sitting at your laptop on a Monday afternoon. 

‘I’m doing another one,’ I announce. (I have the whole 30g tin to myself, after all). 

You may have noticed that real-life caviar bumps are suddenly all the rage – on celebratory, hedonistic display at bougie restaurants and bars, art openings, and festivals. But how did we come to lick salt-cured, unfertilised fish eggs off our hands in the first place? 

‘That’s the traditional way to eat caviar, so you don’t taste anything else,’ says Lianne Won-Reburn, quality control and sales manager at North Carolina-based Marshallberg Farm, which produces and sells sustainably farmed osetra caviar direct to consumers (starting at $60 for 30g). ‘The science behind it supposedly says that if you eat it off your hand, you don’t get any other interfering flavours or textures.’

Won-Reburn was taught to taste caviar this way by a consultant from Astrakhan in the Volga Delta when her family started the farm in 2010. The practice is generations-old, she says, baked into the culture of countries adjacent to the Caspian Sea, where wild sturgeon once swam in abundant numbers. Before purchasing a tin, people would sample it like this first to know what they were buying. 

I can’t help but wonder whether there’s truth to the idea that a human hand offers a purer base for sampling roe than, say, a wooden or mother of pearl spoon (metal spoons can taint the taste). So, I fire off a note to Danielle Reed, associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, who paradoxically points out that our skin may do one better because of what it secretes.  

‘There may be something in our non-glabrous skin that makes caviar taste better,’ she muses. 

For all you non-scientists, glabrous means hair-free skin, while non-glabrous skin is that with hair on it, like the back of the hand. When I ask what it is about our skin makeup that might be at work here, she corrects me. ‘The question is not what is in the skin on the back of the hands, but what it secretes – as in salts (think about sweat), waxes, fatty acids, and volatile compounds.’

Is there anything sexier than picturing the ultimate posh food engaged in some aromatic dance with our skin, making it taste even richer? Of course, Reed quickly points out that this is all speculation.

Indeed, Michaelson confesses that until my email, she hadn’t heard of a flavour/ texture-purity argument for bumping caviar. From her research, eating caviar off the hand was more of a sanitary choice. As caviar was similarly plentiful in the US through the early 1900s, taverns often plied drinkers with free tins as a salty bar snack. 

‘Traditionally, caviar was sort of there on the bar, like peanuts,’ says Michaelson. ‘You wouldn't want to share a spoon with people, so you’d put it on your hand – usually the back, because our palms are less clean from touching everything. They’d also have sliced white bread on the bar –the goal always being to make everyone thirsty so they’d buy more drinks.’ 

Roe’s entire MO flies in the face of ‘shoulds’ when it comes to eating caviar – asserting that something this special should be enjoyed without pretense. My sample arrived in an engravable gift box with a mother of pearl spoon and key for opening the tin, plus a tub of creme fraiche and, delightfully, a bag of Cape Cod kettle-cooked potato chips ($185).

‘I think there’s no right or wrong way to eat caviar in general,’ says Michaelson. ‘We all have different palates. Everyone likes something different. You might like yours on your hand or on scrambled eggs; I might like mine on toast with butter in the morning – which I do, by the way.’

Before long, the three of us are heaping potato chips with creme fraiche and spoonfuls of roe, and laughing about how Michaelson has to keep an eye on her caviar-loving three-year-old, who’s been known to consume an entire tin in one sitting.

‘That’s the cool aspect; we’re capturing purists, but we’re also demystifying it,’ says Madden, as she crunches into a caviar chip. 

‘Caviar is a beautiful experience, whether you go high or low brow with the rest,’ Michaelson adds. ‘Let’s not make it so serious.’  

While closing down my laptop for the day a few minutes later, I take another bump of lush, brackish roe with my free hand. If only every workday ended like this. 

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