Despite being one of the most famous and expensive dishes in the world (who hasn’t heard of caviar?), few know about caviar’s origins and how it became one of the most sought-after delicacies. The history of caviar is one of taste, trade and glamour, a story which makes it easy to daydream about the busy harbors of the Caspian Sea, the roaring ‘20s and the exclusive, fine-dining experiences of today.
What is the meaning of caviar?
But first, a little background on the etymology of the word “caviar”. There are two possible roots of origin, either from the Ancient Greek avyron, which stands for “egg”, or from the Persian khav-yar, which seems to be favored by historians, which translates to “cake of strength” or “cake of power”. While we may not know exactly where the word “caviar” comes from, one thing is certain: this unique delicacy goes far back in time, farther than one might imagine.
Where does caviar come from?
You may already know that caviar refers only to sturgeon roe which is curated following specific processes that preserve the savory taste of the fish pearls. Sturgeons are large, saltwater fish that live largely in the Caspian and Black seas but can also be found in certain regions of the Pacific and South Atlantic oceans, harboring North America. Sturgeon is not exclusively maritime. It can live in large lakes and rivers which makes it easier to breed, especially in Europe.
There are 27 different species of sturgeon in the world, and some like the white sturgeon, have been fished for food since ancient times. Caviar shortly followed suit, as there are records of this delicacy dating back to Persia and Ancient Greece.
A brief history of caviar
The very first known record of caviar goes as far back as the 4th Century B.C., to Aristotle, one of Ancient Greece’s most prominent philosophers. The scholar wrote about the sturgeon roe delicacy as one of the main culinary attractions of Greek banquets, which landed in the Balkans via Byzantine Greeks aristocrats, who actively traded fish goods with the Kievan Rus populations.
Persians were also known to feast on sturgeon roe from the Caspian Sea, and they believed that caviar had healing powers (“cake of strength”, remember?). Persians would collect the roe on the Kura river, as sturgeon, while being a saltwater fish, will always spawn in freshwater.
It is not known how ancient Greek and Persian civilizations learned to prepare and serve caviar, but the process of salt curation actually originates in China, where carp roe was usually served after being brined in salty water.
While caviar was on the aristocratic agenda in ancient times, the real caviar era began with the Russian exploitation for the precious fish eggs. The Russian Tsars were so infatuated with caviar that certain sturgeon species, such as the Sterlet sturgeon, have been overfished and have, thus, become endangered. Even today, there are many restrictions in place when it comes to caviar production. Wild caviar harvesting was suspended in Russia between 2008 and 2011, in order for the wild sturgeon population to replenish.
The Russian Tsars made caviar so famous, it even reached the British Court where kings of the middle ages took hold of all sturgeon stock for themselves.
As time went by, gourmet caviar became accessible all across Europe and North America, and the lavish 1920’s placed caviar on yet another pedestal, next to expensive French champagne and Old Hollywood glam packed parties. Famous actors like Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, and, later on, Elizabeth Taylor, all praised the buttery, savory fish pearls.
Caviar was introduced in America by German immigrant Henry Schacht, who started a caviar business in 1873, in the New Jersey area. Given that the Delaware river was bountiful in sturgeon, Schacht took to exporting the precious roe to Europe, at a meagre price of 1 dollar per pound of caviar.
Slowly but surely, by the rise of 19th century, the United States became the main producer of caviar in the world, with over 90% of all exported caviar coming solely from American sturgeon farming. Russia and Iran, along with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan were, and still are, main players in the caviar business, however, with the imminent decline of sturgeon population in natural habitats, much of the wild sturgeon caviar is no longer available.
The Washington Convention deemed all sturgeon species endangered, with firm requirement for international protection, while in 2008, sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea was permanently banned.
Caviar harvesting and production today
The decline in wild sturgeon caviar has created the opportunity for new ways of harvesting the precious roe. The 1990s opened a new chapter in the caviar industry, with the emergence of sturgeon farms across Europe and the United States.
Nowadays, sturgeon farms are spread all across France, Italy, Bulgaria, Poland, Israel, China, and the United States.
While the most expensive and rare varieties of caviar still come from Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran (the latter two still allowing sturgeon fishing off their coasts), sturgeon farms offer an ethically sourced alternative, maintaining the original curation and preservation principles of the past.
What makes caviar so special
The origin of a sturgeon fish has little to no impact on caviar taste and texture. It is actually the sturgeon species that matters and sets the price of the finished product. Another factor to consider is the preparation of the fish roe.
Beluga caviar is one of the most sought-after and prized types of caviar due to its extra-large eggs and unique, soft texture. This type of caviar melts in your mouth like fresh butter. Golden starlet caviar is another exclusive variety of caviar that is extremely pricy and rare to find.
Next in line, in terms of popularity, is Ossetra, or Russian caviar, that is harvested from the Ossetra species. These fish pearls vary from light to dark brown and are medium-sized, with a particularly briny finish.
Keep in mind that when it comes to caviar, roe preparation is as important as the species of sturgeon species. The precious fish pearls require proper salting and preservation, as well as meticulous egg-selection, in order to deliver the unique taste of genuine caviar.