History Lesson on Caviar
March 27, 2020
Caviar. What do you feel when hearing the word? Pleasure, excitement, curiosity, luxury? Maybe you think of an elegant dinner or a special event, like a wedding or anniversary. Caviar is synonymous with delicacy, fine food, exclusivity, and wealth. There lies a long and interesting story within it’s history.
The name comes from the Persian word xâvyâr meaning "egg-bearing". It consists of salt-cured roe of the Acipenseridae family. The roe can be "fresh" (non-pasteurized) or pasteurized, with pasteurization reducing its culinary and economic value. Caviar is usually eaten as a garnish or a spread from a spoon made of mother of pearl, although bone and tortoiseshell material are also available.
Today there is a wide variety of types of caviar like Beluga, Sterlet, Kaluga hybrid, American White Sturgeon, Russian Osetra, Siberian Sturgeon and Sevruga, but the rarest and most expensive is from Beluga Sturgeon of the Caspian Sea.
Beluga caviar is most prized for its soft, extremely large (pea-size) eggs and the color ranges from pale silver gray to black. One variety is the small golden Sterlet caviar which is very rare and once was only reserved for Russian, Iranian and Austrian Royalty. Medium-sized, light brown to rich brown Osetra, also known as Russian caviar, is the next grade. The Chinese Kaluga hybrid varies in color from dark gray to light golden green and is a close cousin of Beluga caviar.
Back in time, Caviar was a source of richness and a proof of it. The first record of caviar dates to the Greek scholar Aristotle who, in the 4th Century B.C., mentioned it as being a delicacy made of the eggs of the sturgeon, enjoyed at banquets where it was met with great fanfare. Caviar and sturgeon from the Sea of Azov began reaching the tables of aristocratic and noble Byzantine Greeks in the 10th century.
Caviar was introduced to the Slavic counties in the 8th century. Archaeologists even discovered sturgeon fossils dating back to the 11th century during excavations near the territory of the Moscow Kremlin and Sturgeon spines have been found in ancient fireplaces. In the mid-16th century, sturgeon was regularly served to Russian Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible). After the annexation of the Astrakhan and Kazan Khanates in the 1550’s, the Volga River Basin was officially absorbed into the Russian realm and Russians were allowed to fish without paying tribute.
One historical anecdote tells the story of how a Russian tsar sent a Western European counterpart a pound of black caviar and the European monarch, out of ignorance, instructed his cooks to boil it first. In 1725, Russia exported 80 percent of its production of caviar for financing its Navy.
There are many interesting stories around caviar and with caviar, which we’ll save for a later post. Now it is time to enjoy a spoonful of “black oil”. Bon appetit!