"Not Despised at the Best Tables":
The History of Caviar
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares things you didn’t know you didn’t know about, one of what he calls the “lexicon of luxury.” Along with Champagne, truffles, and lobster, caviar has become an ingredient that speaks of indulgence and opulence. However, that was not the case for all of its long and fascinating history.
So if you want to know why a Russian Tsar insisted his taxes be paid in caviar, why improvements in shipping made caviar a luxury, and why 19th century American bars used to give away caviar sandwiches for free, come and join us on this episode of Eat My Globe.
EAT MY GLOBE
“NOT DESPISED AT THE BEST TABLES”: THE HISTORY OF CAVIAR
What do you call a fish that can give you a face lift?
I don’t know. What do you call it?
A plastic Sturgeon.
A plastic sturgeon, see?
Even I’m embarrassed about that one.
Okay, let’s carry on.
Hi everybody. I’m Simon Majumdar, and welcome to a brand-new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food. And, on today’s episode, we’re going to talk about another one of those foods that I like to place in what I call the “Lexicon of Luxury.” It’s an ingredient that we think of as being at the height of culinary indulgence and highly esteemed in gourmand circles with the likes of truffles, and lobster and champagne, whose histories we’ve previously covered on Eat My Globe. If you have not yet listened to the episodes on these other ingredients of luxury, now would be a great time to go and catch up.
In the meantime, on today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about an ingredient that has on the one hand, a Guinness world record sale price of £20,000 or the then-equivalent of $34,500 for 1 kilogram, which is about 2.3 pounds. But, on the other hand, as recently as the 19th century, it was given away free in bars – in a sandwich, no less – to promote more drinking. It’s an ingredient that has had a history that may date back to the ancient Persians, was cited by Shakespeare as something of an acquired taste, and even now can make people either cry with joy at the thought of a tiny mother of pearl spoonful of it crossing their lips and, at the same time, can make others curl their own lips at the very thought of even touching the stuff that is extracted from the ovaries of a fish. It’s also an ingredient whose industry has a projected worth of $500 million by 2023.
Yes folks, we’re going to talk about that polarizing ingredient and one that also happens to be one of my all-time favorite delicacies, caviar.
So, as always, before we go any further, let’s try to find a useful definition of what it is we are going to be talking about. This is something that I like to do in every episode, but it is particularly important here because, often, there’s a great deal of confusion about what caviar actually is.
Our chums at Merriam Webster call caviar,
“processed salted roe of large fish (such as sturgeon).”
While the Cambridge English Dictionary says that caviar is
“the eggs of various large fish, especially the sturgeon, eaten as food. Caviar is usually very expensive.”
Both of these are useful, particularly as there is a tendency in some culinary circles – and yes, I have been guilty of this myself – of using the term caviar to refer to the processed eggs of any fish, and I am certain that you have seen menus or dishes that have been described with the term caviar referring to the eggs or roe from fish such as trout, salmon or mullet. Even if the word caviar is qualified by the use of inverted commas.
However, for this episode, what we’re going to be talking about is “true” caviar. That is the eggs or roe of sturgeon that are processed and then served as food.
So, first, let’s talk about what sturgeon are, and where they’re found.
In fact, the term sturgeon does not cover one fish, but a family of about 26 – although some argue 29 – species of fish that come from the Acipenseridae family. According to the examination of fossil remains, they are believed to have originated during the Middle Jurassic period, that is about 174 to 163.5 million years ago. Many say that sturgeons have not altered much in the period between then and now, and are often referred to as “living fossils.” Me too.
Although some scientists disagree and say that their body size has evolved during the millennia. They live exclusively in the waters of the Northern Hemisphere and their largest numbers can be found in the waters of the Caspian Sea, which is surrounded by Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, as well as the two countries we think of most when we discuss caviar production, Russia and Iran. They can also be found in the waters of Italy, North America and in China.
Sturgeon are anadromous, that is, they live in the seas but can make their ways to river when it comes time to spawn. They are also bottom-feeders, that is to say they find their food in the form of small fish or invertebrates that live in the silt and sand on the beds of seas and rivers. They can take about 12 years to reach maturity, and some can grow to a size of around 14 feet long and weigh about 800 pounds. One of the largest ever found was a beluga sturgeon that reached an incredible 4,500 pounds and a length of some 28 feet. Some sturgeon species have also great longevity, with males living up to around 55 years of age and females living almost three times as long to a whopping 150 years of age. The eggs of any sturgeon – except the green sturgeon – can be used to make caviar. However, the most sought-after caviar by the wealthy set and provide, by far, the basis for caviar production are Beluga, Oscietra, and Sevruga.
Unfortunately, and we shall talk about this more later in the episode, poor management and illegal fishing meant that they have been significantly overfished and, for example, the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea has declined by nearly 70%. And, most sturgeon species in the wild have now been on the endangered species list. Indeed, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has stepped in and banned the sale of caviar from wild sturgeon.
So as well as that quick discussion of the sources of caviar, I think it would also be worthwhile to look briefly at the process of how caviar is made, as that also helps us explain why it is so expensive, and why overfishing has become such a severe issue.
In the majority of cases, wild caviar is taken from a female sturgeon that has been killed.
Depending on the species or whether they are ocean or river sturgeons, they may spawn from the spring through to the fall. The mature female sturgeon – that is, when they are at least 10 years old – travel upstream to lay their eggs. The sturgeon may produce 10 million eggs at a time. Sturgeon eggs are around 3 millimeters in diameter. When ready, the females drop their eggs, which then sink to the ground. Once hatched, the larvae stay in the bottom drifting downstream.
Unfortunately, for the sturgeon, these precious eggs are much easier for the fishermen to harvest when they are inside the mother than when they are spawned across the river floor. Plus, once spawned, the coating of the sturgeon eggs begins to weaken rapidly to allow for the male sturgeon to insert its sperm. While that might be good from a breeding point of view, it does not produce good caviar. A weakened coating results in mushy eggs, and far away from that glorious briny “pop” that lovers of caviar adore.
To avoid this, the fishermen capture the female sturgeon and then open up the stomach to remove the eggs immediately. The flesh of the fish is then sold off.
Given the decline in fish stocks, there are increasing attempts both to create farming for sturgeon and to remove the eggs from the female using a “no kill” method. There are a number of different methods. One method is almost the equivalent of giving the female sturgeon a “C – Section.” A small slit is made in the wall of the fish to gain access to the egg-laden ovaries. The slit is then stitched up again and the fish revives to go through the cycle again.
A process developed by a German scientist, Angela Kohler, in around 2014, created what is known as a “Cruelty Free” or “Correct Caviar.” It involves inducing labor by feeding the sturgeon a protein, then the belly is massaged to harvest the eggs without harming the fish itself.
Whether it’s by the old method, or by the kinder modern methods, once the eggs are harvested, they must be handled with care. Immediately after harvesting, the eggs are removed from the sac that holds them – some say the eggs must be removed within 5 minutes for the best caviar. They are then washed to remove any residue.
Once the eggs are totally cleaned, they are salted, which not only provides for flavor but also functions as a preservative. Most exported caviar is lightly salted. Now, caviar afficionados tend to prefer slightly salted caviar, which contains around 2.5% to 8% salt – depending on where it is exported. These are called, “Malossol,” or “little salt” in Russian. Malossol is somewhat new-ish development in caviar making. Previously, caviar contained as much as 15% salt, pressed into cakes that were called “Payusnaya.” These heavily salted caviar – necessitated by longer transport times of the past – have since become more uncommon. Caviar with about 6% to 15% salt are called “Salted Caviar.” Once salted, the caviar is then packed into its famous lacquer lined tins. Caviar from wild sturgeon are aged for about 3 to 4 months while farmed caviar are aged from as little as 2 weeks to as long as a year.
Caviar will be graded on many criteria. According to the magazine, Barron’s, these include, texture, tone and taste. The caviar should be firm, not sticky; the color could be golden, silver or black; and it should taste fresh, not fishy. The species should also be of note. While Beluga is almost synonymous with caviar and known as the best, the US has mostly banned them since 2005. According to the New York Times, Beluga have large eggs, gray color and a buttery taste.
The next highly prized caviar is Osetra, which translates to “sturgeon” in Russian. Beware, however, that, for example, “Siberian Osetra” is not the same species that afficionados prefer – the osetra they prefer is the Russian sturgeon or the Russian osetra. Complicating matters a bit is that the Russian sturgeon is probably the same species as the Persian sturgeon. In any event. . . it’s all very confusing, I know.
In any event, according to the New York Times, the right kind of Osetra has medium eggs, yellowish to brownish or blackish in color and a nutty taste.
Sevruga is also a prized caviar but is difficult to find these days. The New York Times describes Sevruga as having small eggs, gray color and a delicate smell.
Another quality caviar that some consider to be more affordable and similar to Osetra in taste is Tranmontanus from California.
The caviar produced in Iran and Russia is considered to be the finest. But, we should not forget that there are some truly splendid caviars harvested around the world such as the Tranmontanus in the United States, and the brand known as “Kaluga Queen” from China, which was, as of 2017, the number one choice for many Parisian Michelin restaurants.
So, that’s a very quick Caviar 101 for those of you who are not familiar with all of the nuances of harvesting and processing sturgeon eggs. And, I hope you found it useful. However, this is a food history podcast, so now let’s get to the heart of the matter and start talking about the history of caviar itself.
There are many different debates about how the origins of the word “caviar” came into the English language. The version most given in the dictionaries is that it came from the Italian, “Caviare,” which was taken from the Turkish, “Khaviar,” with a “K.” It’s also likely that the word “caviar” came from the Persian word, “Khāwyār,” or “fish’s eggs.” Some caviar sellers offer up a story that the ancient Persians believed caviar to have medicinal powers. I’m not sure about that, but Prevention Magazine once claimed that caviar contains a large amount of vitamin B-12, so who knows?
In Russian, where caviar is considered to be the national dish, it carries another name and is also known as “Ikra” or “spawn.” For those of you who are sushi fans, you might find that interesting as the name for salmon eggs in Japanese is “Ikura” – although I can find no evidence that the two are related, and it might well be a coincidence. But interesting, nonetheless.
In her really terrific book, “Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of The Worlds Most Coveted Delicacy,” author Inga Saffron puts forward an argument
“The first unambiguous references to caviar appear in medieval times.”
That’s not to say, of course, that people weren’t well aware of caviar before that.
There is archaeological evidence that the Phoenicians and the ancient Egyptians were making salted preserves out of fish eggs.
The ancient Greeks had a maritime culture, and fish in many forms, including salted, were a major part of their diet. They were also known to eat salted fish roe, so it seems unlikely that they would not have sampled the eggs taken from a plump female sturgeon. Ancient Greeks were also notable traders and had built up considerable routes for themselves by the 6th century B.C.E., which took them into territories that included access to rivers and seas that would have been replete with sturgeon.
Saffron states in her book that although sturgeon were plentiful, they were also very hard to catch because they would not bite baited hooks or fall into nets. So, the fish was considered something of a delicacy and a “noble fish.”
Most of the “quick histories” that you see on the internet mention that Aristotle made references to eggs from sturgeon being served at a banquet. However, although it is probable that he was aware of sturgeon, I have yet to find a definitive source of Aristotle himself seeing this, so it’s perhaps one to take with another mother of pearl spoonful of salted eggs. However, in his work, the “Annals and Magazine of Natural History,” he does talk about another fish known as “Glanis,” a type of catfish from the same region that also bears eggs and the two may well have been confused. There is still a catfish in those regions that is known as Aristotle’s Catfish.
Easier to confirm would be that other ancient Greeks saw caviar served at banquets. Ancient Greek scholar, Athenaeus, who in his work “Deipnosophists” or “The Gastronomers” from around 200 C.E., makes reference to an earlier time to a writer known as Dilphilos of Sinope, who had encountered two types of caviar on a trip to the impressive city of Alexandria. And then, in the same work, makes a number of other references to caviar, including this one from a rather wonderfully named Sopater the Pathian.
“He then received the caviar from a sturgeon
Bred in the mighty Danube, dish much prized,
Half-fresh, half-pickled, by the wandering Scythians.”
In his work, “On the Nature of Animals,” ancient Roman scholar Aelianus again says that the sturgeon was not only considered a sacred fish, but also so hard to catch that procuring one was a source of great celebration for the fishermen.
“Our great poet is supposed to call the sturgeon (?) a ‘sacred fish.' According to one account it is rare, but is caught in the sea off Pamphylia, though even there hardly at all. But if it is caught, the fishermen deck themselves with garlands to celebrate their good luck; they garland the fishing-boats as well, and put into port, as with cymbals and flutes they summon people to bear witness to their catch.”
Given the Romans’ general love of fish, and the fact that they were well aware of sturgeon, it’s unsurprising that the bones of the fish have been found in archeological pits in London dating back to ancient Rome.
And, given the Romans’ highly sophisticated methods of salting fish for preservation, it seems sensible to believe that eating salted sturgeon’s eggs was not unknown in ancient Rome.
As the quote I just read shows, sturgeons were a very rare catch and the fish would only have been available to the very wealthiest in society, so it is unlikely that caviar was an everyday delicacy. In fact, the great orator, Cicero, is known to have referred to it as,
“This is a fish fit for only a few choice palates.”
As Saffron says in her book on Caviar, it is not until the middle ages that we begin to see more regular references to caviar being consumed.
The earliest written reference we can find comes from around 1240, after the razing of Moscow and Kiev by the Mongol Warrior Batu Khan, the grandson of famed warrior, Genghis Khan. Once he had taken control of central Russia, he visited the Monastery of the Resurrection at Uglich, a town on the banks of the Volga River. Accompanied by his wife, Yildiz, the monks welcomed them with a feast. The monks had prepared their finest dishes for their guests, which included whole roast sturgeon. At the end of the meal, the monks served them a dessert of apple conserves that were topped with salted sturgeon eggs. Yildiz was not so taken by this dish nor its smell and disappeared to bed. Batu, on the other hand, was far more approving and ate his dish.
The Russian Orthodox Church had a large part of control over much of the life of everyday Russians. It decreed that nearly 200 days a year might be subject to fasting restrictions, which is called, “Postnyi.” This meant that meals were going to exclude dairy and meat. Consequently, fish became a large part of the Russian diet and treated with great respect. In 1280, the Russian Orthodox Church approved caviar as being permissible to eat during fasts.
This may seem odd given that we now think of caviar as being such an expensive indulgence. However, the Mongols began to develop new techniques for catching the plentiful sturgeon in their captured territories. These included lines of hooks that were attached to a stationary object like a tree and then laid in the water. As Nicola Fletcher says in her book, “Caviar: A Global History,”
“These early catching systems may appear crude, but the sturgeon were so plentiful and so pathetically easy to catch that there was no necessity for further refinements for some six hundred years.”
However, for the locals, despite the bounty of sturgeon, the flesh itself was still expensive and eating the eggs from the sturgeon was cheaper.
It was also thanks in a large part to the Mongols that we begin to see caviar moving from Russia to Europe. Batu Khan established a capital in the rather Harry Potter sounding city of Astrakhan, which was an important point on The Great Silk Road – the trading routes that operated between China and Europe. That gave the Mongols, or the Tatars as they are sometimes known, a chance to act as middlemen between the Chinese, the Persians and the merchant ships that came from states such as Genoa and Venice. As well as trade in silks and spices, barrels of caviar also began to find their way to Europe.
1n 1547, Ivan Vasilyevich, or “Ivan the Terrible” as he became known, was the first to be declared the Tsar of Russia. In 1556, he began a campaign against the Tatars to capture the city of Astrakhan, which he did so without encountering much resistance. This gave him not only control of the Volga river, but also access to the Caspian Sea and the control of the now well-developed caviar fisheries.
I’m not sure how true it is but apparently, Ivan loved his caviar, particularly boiled in milk with poppy seeds. But I do know that a 16th century manual called “Domostroi,” or “House Order,” which is a book about managing the Russian home during the time of Ivan the Terrible, recommends that every weekend during the Lenten season, people eat
“caviar, pike caviar, pressed caviar, fresh sturgeon caviar, caviar preserved during the autumn; . . . pastry crust with sturgeon caviar; caviar simmered in vinegar and poppy juice; caviar patties.”
Wow! That’s a lot of caviar.
When Ivan took control of Astrakhan, he even required the Mongols or Tatars to send fresh sturgeon to Moscow as a tribute.
Around the early 1620s, the Russian state placed export of caviar under monopoly to the monarchy. The Tsar then immediately franchised this out to a rich merchant named Nadeia Sveteshnikov.
Also around this time, caviar became not only “postnyi” or fast day food, but also part of the feasting diet of wealthy Russians. In 1656, one Boyar Boris Ivanovich Morozov, who was Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich’s head of the treasury, reportedly enjoyed a Palm Sunday meal including
“pressed caviar, black caviar, red cisco roe.”
It also included some rather more unusual dishes such as, quote “backbone of sturgeon (yiziza) with horseradish,” and quote, “pie with sturgeon milt,” end quote.
Excessive eating sturgeon among the elite appeared to be common given that the same Tsar, Alexei, also required a supply of 1,500 sturgeon – whether beluga or osetra – be brought to Moscow every year. The fish would have been salted, brined, dried and made into jerky The caviar – again, both beluga and osetra – also flowed in.
In 1682, Tsar Alexei’s son, the famous Peter the Great, came to power jointly with his sibling and then, later, in 1696, held sole power. Peter instituted many reforms. This included forming a, quote, “Fishery Head Office,” and declaring a government monopoly on fishing.
Within this monopoly, he gave the Cossacks – self-governing Russians who served in the military – the exclusive rights to fish for sturgeon, and allowed them to prepare caviar for purposes of exporting them. Peter also created what became known as the “Troitshnaya” style of caviar. This is where the caviar was harvested in the Volga river, and whizzed straight to Saint Petersburg by a troika – or a cart with three horses – within 3 days. This increase in supply and the speed to which it arrived made caviar easily accessible to the wealthy, the poor and everyone in between.
Caviar’s fortunes began to change in the 18th century when it became an exclusive food for the wealthy once again. This was made possible by rebranding caviar in Europe as a luxury item.
So if caviar was a big hit in Russia, what about the rest of the world?
Well, you will remember that earlier in the episode we talked about the barrels of caviar that would have made their way into merchant cities of places like Genoa and Venice. Well those caviars would have been very different from the caviar we might know today. To survive that lengthy sea crossing, the caviar in those barrels would have been very heavily salted. It was initially sold by apothecaries and was greeted with less than enthusiasm by its new Venetian customers who, in the 13th century, even came up with a proverb to dissuade people from trying it. It goes like this.
“eateth of Cavialies (caviar), Eateth Salt, Dung and Flies.”
Dung and flies? Yeah, I probably wouldn’t be eating that either.
[Inhales breath sharply.]
Over time, however, some folks became a tiny bit more enthusiastic. Bartolomeo Scappi, the most famous chef of the Italian renaissance, author of the book “The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi” and private chef to Pope Pius V – who we also talked about on our episodes on The History of Cheese and The History of Garlic – wrote about caviar saying,
“Caviar made from sturgeon roe is brought from Alexandria and other places on the Mediterranean by merchants who have cornered the market for it; they bring it in casks along with the salted foods. It is served on warm slices of toast with orange juice and pepper over it.”
I’m not sure what I think about dousing my caviar in orange juice and pepper, but it was enticing enough that in 1570, he prepared a menu with it.
By the 1600s, although caviar was still a relatively new indulgence, it was being devoured by those who had an inquiring mind and palate. Scientist Galileo Galilei, who lived from 1564 to 1642, famously is known to have sent a gift of caviar to his daughter, Virginia, who resided in a Florentine convent, where it was greeted with less enthusiasm than its sender must have hope for; it was thrown away after much disapproval by the other nuns.
For the record, I wouldn’t have thrown it away.
In England, too, caviar was becoming known. And sturgeon had been revered for some time.
So much so, that in the 1300s, Edward II, King of England, declared that sturgeon was a “royal fish” and that all sturgeon caught in the country were automatically the property of the monarchy.
This is still good law, by the way. As recently as 2004, news broke that someone who caught sturgeon in Wales could have gotten into trouble if they did not first offer the fish to Her Majesty The Queen. For the record, they did, and Her Maj gave her permission to the lucky anglers to keep the sturgeon. God bless Her Majesty.
In his work written between 1765 and 1769, “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” Sir William Blackstone discusses the notion of “Royal Fish.” That is, fish that were, by their very nature,
“not transferred to the sovereign from any former owner, but are originally inherent in him by the rules of law.”
In it, Blackstone makes note of the quote, “superior excellence,” of whale and sturgeons. One other fish was added to that list later. I didn’t mention it because it served no porpoise.
See what I did there?
Served no porpoise. Ah.
As we saw . . . . And, as we saw earlier, okay, let’s get back to this.
As we saw earlier, in 1624, after the Russian government – who had a monopoly on the caviar trade – allowed wealthy merchant Nadeia Sveteshnikov – remember him? – to oversee the trade, he signed an agreement with a British trading consortium led by one Ralph Freeman. It is also likely that this agreement later involved the Dutch. In any event, the agreement allowed Russia to supply the English and the Dutch – who, in then supplied the people of Italy and Constantinople – with a yearly stash of caviar for 6 years in exchange for 14,000 Rubles per year, which amounted to an annual 17% profit for the Russian government. What a profit. But, more importantly, it showed us that Europe was beginning to show a passion for caviar.
However, it would be still fair to say that, at this point, not everyone was in love with caviar. In England, William Shakespeare mentions caviar in his play, “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” or “Hamlet” to you and me, which was written around 1599 to 1601. In Act 2, Scene 2, he has Hamlet proclaim,
“I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was
never acted; or, if it was, not above once; for the
play, I remember, pleased not the million; 'twas
caviare to the general: but it was -- as I received
it, and others, whose judgments in such matters
cried in the top of mine -- an excellent play, well
digested in the scenes, set down with as much
modesty as cunning.”
The term “Caviare to the general” has, as have so many of Shakespeare’s lines, entered the English language – in this case, as a way of describing something good that the uninformed person has under appreciated. Which I think goes to show that caviar was well enough known to be referenced but still something that had not yet become widely accepted by the regular populace.
It was not just the poor huddled masses who were ignorant of the joys of caviar, however.
Sturgeon were well known in France and, as in England, they were rare enough that when caught they were the property of the monarch. Although caviar had been produced when Louis XIV reigned in the mid-17th century, the salted eggs were not so loved by everybody. Reportedly, when Louis XV sampled caviar spooned from a gift sent to him by Peter the Great, he was so appalled by the taste, that he spat it on to the floor of the palace. Hardly a royal endorsement.
Likewise, in 1741, Jacques Savary des Bruslons published a merchant’s directory known as, “Dictionnaire Universel de Commerce,” which translates to Universal Dictionary of Commerce. In it, and as author Ingga Saffron translates it, he chose the slightly underwhelming praise for caviar and one that I quoted for the title of this episode saying,
“It is beginning to be known in France, where it is not despised at the best tables.”
Perhaps this lack of outright enthusiasm for caviar was down to the very salty nature of the caviar that was sent to Europe? As you will recall, it had to be salted as part of the process of preserving it. Enter into the story another one of those amazing people in food history who often get forgotten.
Born in 1745 as Ioannis Leontides, this gentleman later became known as Ioannis Varvakis – he took on the name because of his eyes’ resemblance to a bird from his island home of Psara in the Aegean – the Varvaki.
He grew up to be a pirate complete with his own ship and crew. In 1768, despite being an Ottoman by birth, Varvaki decided to fight against the Ottoman Empire and served in the Russian army during the Russo-Turkish War. He soon became friends with the then-monarch Catherine the Great, who rewarded him with a lot of florins; a Russian name – Ivan Andreevich Varvatsi; and importantly to our story, free reign to fish tax-free in the Caspian Sea. He put this to good use and, with a partner, set up a hugely successful fishing and caviar making business. He soon realized that one of the biggest issues of shipping caviar to Europe was the heavy salting of the eggs to avoid spoilage. This was exacerbated by the barrels that were porous and accelerated the eggs going rotten. Vavarkis discovered that the staves of wood from the Linden tree were not porous and, although they were much more expensive, began to have all of the barrels for his caviar made from them. The resulting improvement of his product meant that by the late 18th century, he was employing over 3,000 people to pack his caviar. He became very, very wealthy. Over recent times, Varvarkis has become something of a Greek hero. And in 2012, there was even a film made about his life, which suitably was entitled, “God Loves Caviar.”
Caviar’s success began to grow with the advent of new developments in shipping as well as caviar being seen in Europe as a luxury item by the wealthy.
There is obviously a great deal more we could write about caviar’s history in Europe. However, as we only have limited time in this podcast before all this talk of food makes you too hungry to listen any more, I did want to touch on caviar’s history in what is now the United States.
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The waters of the United States were once replete with sturgeon so much so that the native Potawatomi and Ojibwe tribes spoke of
“rivers so full of sturgeon that a person could walk across the water on the backs of the fish.”
And the early colonists traded with the tribes for dried sturgeon for sustenance.
In the 19th century, the eggs from these fish were so readily available they were even offered up as free snacks in bars – a caviar sandwich, no less – in the hope that the saltiness would promote the sale of drinks.
Now I definitely want me a caviar sandwich. That sounds fantastic.
The sturgeon were so plentiful that in the Hudson River, for example, they were given the name, “Albany Beef,” or as writer Joel Munsell said when writing about sturgeon in 1856, people from Albany were known as, quote “sturgeonites,” or, quote “emigrated from Sturgeondom.” End quote.
In 1873, a businessman named Henry Schacht set up an export business to sell caviar to Europe at the seemingly lavish price of $1 a pound. It was a huge success and others followed suit. By the end of the 19th century, the United States of America was the largest exporter of caviar in the world.
However, the success of the caviar business in the waters of the United States led to the sturgeon being severely over fished. For example, in the Columbia River, in 1892, over 6 million pounds of Sturgeon were taken from the waters. And during the height of sturgeon fishing in the U.S. from 1885 to 1895, around 25 million pounds of sturgeon were captured. This level of fishing was simply not sustainable. And, when added with the issues caused by destruction of the sturgeons’ natural habitat, the increase of pollutants such as oil spills that began to enter the water, and the fish’s natural long sexual maturation cycle that could span from 6 to 25 years, there was a very real possibility that the sturgeon was going to be on the brink of extinction. Restrictions were put in place in 1910, which then ended caviar production in the United States.
The same issues of overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution also began to have similar impact in Russia in the 20th century. This was added to by the political upheavals in Russia at the same time. The Tsar, at the beginning of the century, forced the Cossacks, who were the major producers of caviar in the Volga, to send him eleven tons of their finest caviar every year, which required the killing of over 5,000 sturgeon.
After the Russian Revolution, which began in 1917, and the continued issues with pollution and overfishing, caviar went from being widely available in Russia to being in very short supply. This is when we begin to see caviar moving from being a product that was considered relatively available to one that is now what I call one of the “Lexicon of Luxury.” It’s hard to believe now that we see good caviar on sale often for many thousands of dollars when, at one point during the First World War, part of British soldiers’ rations were jars of pressed caviar, which they despised and called “fish jam” and even tried to replace them with tins of sardines.
Now, of course, restrictions on the sale of caviar remain in place. Sales of Beluga caviar have been banned in the United States since 2005, when the producing countries in the Caspian Sea region could not give adequate details of their plans to safeguard the endangered fish. And while Sevruga from the Caspian Sea is difficult to find, sales of Oscetra from the Caspian Sea are still available, as well as the excellent Kaluga Queen from China and the equally excellent homegrown farmed caviars in the United States.
Which makes me think that I should now go and open that small jar of the good stuff that I’ve been saving as a little treat for myself when I finished writing this episode. But, before I do, one of the questions I am most asked is, what is the best way to eat caviar?
Well, I’m very much of the old school Russian variety when it comes to eating caviar. While I have consumed it with chopped onions and on top of scrambled eggs, my preference is just give me the tin, that mother of pearl spoon, and a few warm blini, and leave me be.
And to drink? I look to the one and only M.F.K. Fisher, the great American writer, who, when describing eating Sevruga with her father, sighed
“My father and I ate caviar, probably Sevruga, with green-black smallish beads and a superb challenge of flavor for the iced grassy vodka we used to cleanse our happy palates.”
[Inhales breath deeply]
See you next time folks.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: October 12, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.