Caviar is basically the roe (eggs, also sometimes referred to as “pearls”) of the female sturgeon, a large migratory fish that has roamed the cold waters of the northern hemisphere for over 250 million years. Size and weight can vary depending on the type of sturgeon. Some types can grow to over 3000 lbs (1360 kg), while others average around 132lbs (60 kg). Sturgeon are found mainly in the Caspian Sea, an inland body of water enclosed by among others the two historically major caviar-producing countries in the world, Russia and Iran. However, it is also found in the Black Sea, some parts of the Pacific Northwest and South Atlantic regions of North America, and it is common in the big lakes and rivers in Europe. Most sturgeons are anadromous fish, which spend most of their time in salt water, but migrate upstream to spawn (lay eggs) in freshwater.
The History Of Caviar
The mystique and luxury of caviar dates back to the 4th Century B.C. In records the Greek philosopher Aristotle described this delicacy as the eggs of the sturgeon, heralded into banquets amongst trumpets and flowers.
However, the Persians were the first to prepare and savour sturgeon roe. The word “Caviar” actually comes from the Persian word “khav-yar” which means “cake of strength”, as many medicinal powers were attributed to Caviar. Sturgeon roe has not always been the delicacy that it is today. A long time ago caviar was eaten by the fishermen at the Caspian sea or in American saloons as an appetizer – mainly because of its salty taste – to encourage thirst.
Of course without refrigeration Caviar is quickly spoiled. It is exactly this perishability what made caviar so exclusive, and it was precisely this exclusivity that fascinated the Tzars – among whom Peter The Great and other members of the Romanov family – and the higher echelons of these days. It is an undeniable fact that Russia and the Russian Tsars catapulted Caviar into the world of utter luxury.
Over the years, the sturgeon eggs had become much more popular among the upper class of the European society. By the Middle Ages, the British Kings reserved all the sturgeon for their own consumption and knighted it the “Royal Fish”, set aside solely for royalty.
By the mid-1800’s, ever greater quantities of sturgeon were harvested for their eggs, as the aristocracy in Russia and Europe had developed a taste for the “food of the Gods”. Because the popularity of Caviar around the world increased tremendously over the years, over-fishing, illegal poaching and pollution resulted in the depletion of wild sturgeon from what was once a healthy population.
In 1998, the sturgeon came under the protection of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Regulating international trade in sturgeon, was essential to preserve the resource for future generations. A couple of years later, CITES banned all import and export of wild caviar in an effort to end the unsustainable exploitation of sturgeon species. The introduction of CITES controls in 1998, and customers demanding sustainably produced sturgeon caviar, has driven the transformation of the industry into a global sturgeon farming business.
The Tradition Of Preparing Caviar
The tradition of preparing caviar has remained the same for thousands of years. The harvesting, preparation and manufacturing process of caviar is incredibly arduous, and follows strict traditional methods.
The birth of Caviar begins with the removal of the fish eggs (roe) from the sturgeon. After removal of the egg sack, the roe is carefully sieved, cleaned, rinsed and classified according to size, colour, flavour and texture. In general, the size, flavour and colour of the sturgeon eggs varies depending on whether they are “Beluga,” “Oscietra” or “Sevruga” varieties. The eggs can be golden, black, brown, dark green or grey. If the classification process is completed, the caviar moves on to the salting phase.
The Salting Process
The salting process is related to the quality of the Caviar, so the quantity of added salt is carefully monitored. The main purpose of salting is to preserve the Caviar, and maintain as much of the ‘fresh’ and traditional flavour as possible. Therefore, the amount of salt used can vary. The most superior type of Caviar is prepared “Malossol”, a Russian word for little salt (<3.7%). Malossol traditionally was and still is used to signal consumers that what they are buying is quality in taste and has not been over-salted. Aside from Malossol, there is pressed caviar, semi-preserved or “salted” caviar, and pasteurised caviar.