The Story of Caviar


by Thomas W. Gilbert

Caviar is the eggs of the magnificent sturgeon fish. It is rare and expensive; the word itself is redolent of prohibitive luxury.

Caviar is a food with a story, a centuries-long epic of the opposing elements of human nature. There is the dark – greed, larceny, and corruption -- and the light – connoisseurship, pleasure, and passion. What makes the story worth telling is the same thing that makes the sturgeon worth trying to save.

Caviar is delicious.

No one knows who first discovered this fact, or when and where the eggs of the sturgeon first appeared on a plate. Human beings have been eating all kinds of fish roe for thousands of years. The ancient Romans and Greeks almost certainly enjoyed fresh caviar from the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Caviar appears on the European historical radar as a regional trade good in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is mentioned by William Shakespeare, although it is doubtful that he ever tasted any; he uses the word “caviare” as shorthand for the exotic and recherche.

In more recent times caviar became identified with Russia. Part of the reason is geography; the tastiest sturgeon roe comes from fish that once spawned in rivers that flow into the Caspian and the Black Seas, which lie along Russia’s southern edge. Another reason is that for most of its history caviar did not travel well. When salted and packed, caviar could last for weeks, but not long enough to be shipped over long distances. Caviar from the Caspian and the Black Sea regions was long produced and consumed by locals – Russians, Cossacks, Persians, Azeris and their neighbors.

Caviar acquired its famous cachet in part from the reflected glamor of the czars who once ruled the immense Russian Empire. With the advances in canning and refrigeration technology of the late Romanoff period, caviar could be shipped thousands of miles to the great cities of Europe, the Americas and Asia. It was available, but it was a breathtakingly expensive luxury. Unlike most culinary indulgences, however, caviar is good for you – low in salt and fat, high in protein and health-giving vitamins and minerals.

With a long history of affection for all things Russian, Paris, the setter of cultural and culinary trends, began a long love affair with caviar. Parisian restaurants invented the dish’s classic presentation: served on blini, using a mother-of-pearl spoon, from atop a mountain of ice, elegantly accompanied, of course, by a glass of vodka or champagne.

The caviar story took a dark turn in the 20th century when the very existence of the sturgeon that produces its primary ingredient was threatened by overfishing. To understand why, it is necessary to get to know the fish that gives us caviar, as well as a bit of modern human history.

There are at least 26 species of sturgeon in the world, all in the Northern Hemisphere (yes, even in North America). Most are anadromous, meaning that they hatch in fresh water, live in salt water and return in adulthood upriver to their birthplace to spawn. Even though sturgeon reproduce slowly and comparatively late in life – like us humans – they have inhabited the planet in great numbers since prehistory. Producing caviar is a subtle and complex process that begins with catching the right kind of egg-bearing female sturgeon and then correctly judging the developmental status and quality of the eggs. The eggs are carefully harvested and cleaned; the final step, lightly salting and packing them, requires experience and fine judgement, as the eggs vary in size, color, and saltiness from species to species and even fish to fish.

Because of human greed, sturgeon populations declined over the past century and a half and collapsed in recent decades. An irony of the sturgeon story is that the manifold evil of Soviet communism was a great boon to the sturgeon of the Caspian and Black Sea region. The USSR controlled nearly all the habitat that produced high-end caviar, and it strictly limited the annual sturgeon catch and caviar production, as well as setting caviar prices. The demand for exported caviar was so high that this kind of top-down economic control functioned remarkably well. The result was a period of virtual sustainability that came to a shocking end when Communism fell in the late 1980s. Suddenly, there were no enforceable limits on sturgeon catches or caviar production. There was a free-for-all of irresponsible overfishing that has left most sturgeon species critically endangered. Several are extinct.

This might have been the fate of the Caspian and Black Sea sturgeon that give us Beluga, Ossetra, Sevruga and other elite caviars, if not for a 2006 international ban on catching these species in the wild and the rapid rise of sturgeon aquaculture, or fish farming, which was pioneered decades earlier in Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and other former Soviet Socialist Republics.

Sustainable producers with high standards represent the new, bright future of a once-threatened food – and way of life. Their caviar is already of such high quality as to take pressure off wild sturgeon populations and, hopefully, allow them to rebound. As aquaculture technology continues to advance, the caviar industry and the ancient and magnificent sturgeon will survive and perhaps even thrive.

Thomas W. Gilbert is a writer and historian based in Brooklyn, NY. His latest book is the Casey Award-winning How Baseball Happened: Outrageous Lies Exposed, The True Story Revealed

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