The history of caviar
Origins of Caviar
Caviar has enjoyed lasting fame as the luxury treat in the most upscale social circles. So what’s the story behind the mystery and mystique of this luxurious indulgence?
Caviar is basically the roe (eggs, also sometimes referred to as “berries” or “pearls”) of the female sturgeon, a large – it can grow to over 3000 lbs, but averages 60lbs- migratory fish that has roamed the cold waters of the northern hemisphere for over 250 million years. Sturgeon is found mainly in the Caspian Sea, which laps the shore of the two major caviar-producing countries in the world, Russia and Iran, but is also found in the Black Sea, some parts of the Pacific Northwest and South Atlantic regions of North America, and is common in the big lakes and rivers in Europe. Although it is a saltwater fish, it spawns (lays eggs) in freshwater.
The British kings of the middle ages reserved all the sturgeon for their own consumption and knighted it the “Royal Fish”, set aside solely for royalty. However, it was the Persians who first prepared and savored sturgeon roe- the word “caviar” actually comes from the Persian word “khav-yar” which means “cake of strength” or “cake of power”, because the people of Persia attributed many medicinal powers to caviar. The Persians collected the fish eggs on the Kura River, but the tradition of salting fish roe for consumption actually originated in China, where carp eggs were prepared in this manner.
The first known record of caviar dates back to the Greek scholar Aristotle. In the 4th Century B.C. Aristotle described this delicacy as the eggs of the sturgeon, heralded into banquets amongst trumpets and flowers. But it was Russia and the Russian Tsars that catapulted caviar into the world of utter luxury.
The tradition of preparing caviar has remained the same for thousands of years, and is one of the many reasons why caviar prices are so exorbitant. The harvesting, preparation and manufacture, of caviar is incredibly arduous, and follows strict traditional methods.
The birth of caviar – almost literally- begins with the removal of the fish eggs (roe) from the sturgeon. One of the many reasons sturgeon populations have been in such sharp decline is because the most predominant method of extracting the eggs from the sturgeon involves the actual killing of the fish (either before or after the removal of the egg sack). The roe is sieved and “filtered” into different sizes, and then carefully cleaned and rinsed. Classification takes place according to size and color (the 000 to 0 designations), and the caviar moves on to the salting step.
The purpose of salting is primarily to preserve the caviar, and maintain as much of the ‘fresh’ flavor as possible. Therefore, the amount of salt used can vary. “Malossol” caviar- the most superior type- is prepared with little salt. Other types of caviar can be more or less salted. Although things have changed over the year, one thing still remains true: the salt. A special kind of salt was – an is- used to prepare caviar, a very chlorine-free salt from the Russian Astrakhan Steppe, stored for seven years to assure the least chlorine content. Even Iranian caviar factories now export this salt from Russia, so that Russian and Iranian caviars are almost indistinct in flavor and texture.