I got flagged bringing caviar into the States. Here’s what I learned.
A recent visit to Paris was a playlist of all of my favorite things: a weekend at the Four Seasons Hotel George V, cocktails at Little Red Door, a kouign amann (or three) from Stohrer, and dinner at Le George that ended with a candied tomato tart with cacio e pepe ice cream — cacio e pepe ice cream!
The real treat of the weekend, however, was being whisked away in a sidecar along the Seine River to meet Armen Petrossian — whose father was responsible for introducing caviar to France in 1920 — at the Petrossian House. The trip is part of a new Four Seasons La Vie en Bleu program that is one of the coolest things I've ever experienced.
By 9 a.m. Armen and I were making our way through several types of caviar, sipping vodka in between to cleanse the palate. There are many varieties of roe on the market but only sturgeon can be called caviar. It takes upward of 10 years before a sturgeon produces eggs, hence the hefty price tag of quality caviar.
I left with new knowledge and my very own tin of 125 grams of Tsar Imperial, clocking in at around $600 a tin.
Deplaning in North Carolina, I ticked on my customs form that I was bringing back caviar, wine and oil, as I normally do. An agent pulled me aside and questioned me nonstop about my caviar. Beluga caviar is illegal and banned from the states because the beluga sturgeon is critically endangered. I assured her it wasn’t beluga, mainly because the price of beluga caviar is way out of my reach and Petrossian doesn't offer caviar from beluga sturgeon.
The customs agent called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose agent pulled me into a separate room to question me further about my luxurious souvenir. The agent unzipped the mini-cooler and began to inspect. Sweating and fidgeting, I felt like I was in an episode of Locked up Abroad. I kept thinking, what if they take it? It was a gift but it’s still a lot to lose.
Caviar rules but there are also caviar rules — beyond the beluga ban. The most important is that travelers can only purchase and bring back a total of 125 grams of caviar. Anything over this limit will result in confiscation unless you carry a CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) permit — so do the math if you’re planning to bring back multiple smaller tins. The Fish and Wildlife agent also reiterated that it’s always wise to declare items. If you don’t or give false information, there’s a fine and you still end up losing your "imports" in the end.
The agent called in one more employee to make the final decision. They cleared the caviar and packed it back in its mini-cooler.
The caviar back-and-forth took a half-hour and my friend waiting in the cellphone parking lot was wondering where I was. “What took so long?” she asked me. “Caviar,” I said, laughing but frazzled.
Later that night we made blinis from scratch and indulged in the coveted black pearls. She finally understood why I was panicking at the thought of losing my can. “This is the best caviar I’ve ever had,” she said.
Be sure to buy caviar from a well-known, trusted source or from a brand directly. Ask exactly what caviar it is and have this information handy when going through customs. You can also order caviar online, although enjoying it with a Petrossian family member was worth the trip to Paris alone.