Caviar is the ultimate badge of conspicuous consumption. And, for most of us, the lovely presentation of this food is so far removed from the fish from which it comes that I was utterly captivated when I began to look into its history and the current state of the caviar economy.
In my adult life, I have had the occasion to consume caviar a dozen or so times. It is something I would enjoy once a year at best, when I join my friends and family in South Carolina to quail hunt. It was just a treat of the week, an anachronistic moment where we all dressed up beautifully for dinner and we ate caviar on toast points for hors d’oeuvres, along with southern fried shrimp, crab dip, and other wonderful Southern style dishes. I thought then, as I have up until recently, that it was something wonderful from some foreign spot…a treat, a luxury and a rarefied moment of glamour. I had no clue about its origin and no clue about the fish from which it came or the fishermen who brought it to market.
But, much like sparkling diamonds that tell you nothing about their place in the world, but only dazzle you with their implied value, based on a sort of collective fiction, the little eggs on my toast point has a story to tell. All food does. And when I started learning, it was, simultaneously, an awakening and the greatest story I’d ever read about food. No one really likes to look under the skirt of their favorite luxuries because too often it seems there are unpleasantries like blood diamonds, force fed geese, and in this case a very homely and goofy dinosaur of a fish family named sturgeon, which we have enjoyed, feted and toasted, to the edge of extinction over and over throughout the years. But, the upside is that there is always a better way of doing things and when the disinfecting rays of sunlight have their way with something, we often end up with a better system…to wit:
The History Begins in Russia
Caviar has always been synonymous with Russia…black caviar and cold vodka, overflowing on the tables of the wealthiest and most privileged. At least that is the mental picture that has been carefully sustained. Branding is an important thing, after all. But, true enough, the story seems to start in Russia. Caviar, writ large…the word…is supposed to denote only eggs from the family of fish known as the sturgeon. For generations it has been believed that the worlds’ greatest caviar could only come from several particular species of sturgeon found around the Caspian Sea. The names will sound familiar if you have ever sniffed around the best menus: Beluga, Sevruga, Osetra. The sturgeon is an ancient fish, whose lineage in its current evolutionary state goes back hundreds of millions of years.
But the story really doesn’t begin on the tables of the wealthy, but on the tables of the very poor, as so many great foods do. And before that, caviar was found in the trash piles of sturgeon fishermen and in pig troughs. Sturgeon roe was mostly discarded until the 1200’s when the Russian Orthodox Church declared that it was a suitable food to be eaten on fasting days. The church had over 200 fasting days during the year and fish meat was largely only afforded by the better off adherents, leaving little protein for the poorest to eat on those days. So the church declared that they could eat fish roe. Much like the trick of salting fish to preserve it, the roe began to be heavily salted, as well. It was eaten. It was on the table. The tradition had begun.
Caviar climbed up the chain, so to speak, and did make it to the tables of the wealthy. Handled properly, this intensely local food became loved. When dignitaries and travelers made the trek to Russia they were exposed to this delicacy that didn’t travel far from the source. It became the stuff of legend outside of Russia. References are found in literature where it was used as a term synonymous with “mystery” or “unknown.” But a local dish it remained because then fish didn’t travel thousands of miles unless it was swimming. Attempts were made to export caviar but at the receiving end, barrels of degraded and rotten fish eggs were unloaded. Delightful.
Advances came in the form of Linden barrels. Finally some caviar left Russia and arrived in Europe in passable condition, but it was met with tepid reviews. However, steamships and the ability to create ice on demand changed the game forever. Russia could get caviar out. Railroads could bring visitors in. The age of travel dawned. A funny part of this development is that some Russians in the interior would even have live sturgeon transported in tanks on trains, for the very freshest eggs, and to engage in a bit of Russian hospitality that involved showing guests the live fish before it was killed and prepared.
Clearly caviar had crossed over from a dish of self-denial to a dish of fabulous materialism. And, eventually sturgeon stocks in Russia started to decline. An important fact about these apex fish is that they can live to be 125 years old and grow to huge lengths, over 20 feet. But they don’t begin to spawn for 12 or 13 years. When you harvest the giants, and then the large, and then the medium, and you start working your way down to the small sturgeon, you begin killing the stock that has yet to breed. Then you are in trouble. On top of that, it was not simple to tell the gender of the fish, or whether they had eggs in them, so male and female both were harvested, only one out of the three females bearing eggs. Five fish were killed to find the one containing the prized eggs. This is no way to preserve a fishery.
The Native Americans in the Northeast utilized the native sturgeon population as a significant part of their diet and rituals, but most non-natives ignored them and abhorred them. The giant fish would get stuck in and destroy nets being used for smaller fish. You see, at the time sturgeon were massive creatures, often weighing in at over 1000 pounds. But when certain immigrants came to see the rivers in America teeming with sturgeon, the U.S. caviar rush began. By the 1870’s, industrious fishermen were selling caviar by the barrel and shipping it to Europe. Americans were only beginning to have a taste for the eggs. But the story was the same in the U.S. as in Russia, and eventually the stocks of American sturgeon began to decline.
But, in 1906 one of the fishermen, Harry Dalbow, put together the ideas of canning and caviar. He was moonlighting in a tomato packing plant in the off season for sturgeon. He wondered why in the world the new canning and preserving technology wasn’t used for caviar. This was the dawn of the days of “precious” caviar. A decade before, giant bowls of heavily salted caviar would be put before drinkers in pubs to parch them causing them to crave more drink. Now, as the supplies were dwindling, caviar would begin to be sold in tiny portions that had a shelf life, for outrageous sums, instead of selling it by the keg. It would be sold like precious gems. Not soon after, the first retail caviar shop opened in the Waldorf-Astoria.
By 1925, sturgeon fishing in America was all but dead. The caviar in the little jars, an idea birthed in the U.S., would now be filled with Russian caviar. But, as Inga Saffron noted in her wonderful book called Caviar, “Once caviar ceased to be a perishable, local delicacy, the ancient sturgeon’s days were numbered.”
The Break Up of the Soviet Union
The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the real death knell for the sturgeon. Up until then, the very strict Soviet government knew that they had a commodity to strategically export for hard currency as well as the cachet of being the source of a luxury item. They controlled the fisheries and attempted to keep the stocks replenished, though this desire was in competition with an even stronger desire to build dams and produce power, which was a habitat killer for the sturgeon. Imagine, if you will, thousands of giant fish butting their heads against a giant dam, trying to get upriver to spawn. But, the Soviets tried at least. When the wall fell, one major downside of rampant privatization was that the government lost all control of the fisheries. Poaching was rampant. Overfishing was rampant. Smuggling was rampant. The fish were being taken in far too great numbers to sustain the populations and perhaps to even save them at all.
Too many fishermen, taking ever smaller sturgeon, critically depleted the stocks. The fish were, and still are faced with extinction. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) listed the sturgeon as endangered in 1998. They set quotas for export, but no regulation on domestic consumption. And still, we consumers lived in fairly willful ignorance of the situation. We had demand, and we had money, and we wanted the fabled treat at our gatherings. Demand will be supplied. While some companies operated within the confines of the new rules, many more did not. Often our caviar wishes were filled with fish eggs that had been smuggled in unrefrigerated cans jammed into the suitcases of flight attendants and handed off to middlemen at the airport who would then package up the loot for unwitting American consumers. It is not a pretty picture behind that curtain.
However, about this time, smart folks started considering aquaculture. California led the way. Operations like Tsar Nicoulai and Sterling started fish farms for sturgeon, using breeding stock from Russia. What a business plan…can you imagine talking to the bank for a loan on a business that could not physically make a dime, if all went perfectly, for twelve years? But they did it. And as the wild fisheries slid into a hole from which they may or may not recover, aquaculture of sturgeon became the way forward, a way to eat caviar without eating what amounts to the last Panda Bear on a bun or Bald Eagle hotwings.
Switching from wild to farmed has been difficult. Many died-in-the-wool snobs cannot dream of eating the “imitation” fish eggs. Some will always say that wild Caspian Sturgeon eggs are the only “caviar.” I think it is the height of bad karma, not to mention arrogance. I suspect that very few would ever know the difference in a blind tasting. The farmed caviar, which should lead to a moderation of pricing and God hopes a future for wild sturgeon, will cause folks to reassess what reflection they were seeing in the glossy little orbs. Do they like the salty fish eggs, or do they like what being able to afford eggs said about them? I think it is an interesting question. It seems to me that all but those with curious food obsessions, like me, even know that most tins or tiny glass jars of caviar are from farmed fish. Maybe the prices will stay sky high as revelers assume that what they are serving was scooped into the tiny jars by fishermen and processors along the Caspian.
I know that I like fish eggs. I also know that I do enjoy getting caught up in the ceremony of the rare treat. I like wearing pearls and heels (once a year) and loading up a buttery toast point with black eggs and a squeeze of lemon (unnecessary) and a bit of minced onion (also unnecessary). I don’t use it as a garnish, like a culinary bow. I suppose I’d rather wait for a truly special occasion and splurge on a whole tin to eat at the family table or with friends on a very special occasion. We use mother of pearl caviar spoons given to us as a wedding gift by a friend. I thought at the time that the gift giver thought more of me and my appetites than I did. Look what she knew. Sterling silver tarnishes with caviar. It will make the eggs taste peculiar. Oddly, you are better off using a plastic spoon than a silver spoon.
As I mentioned, now you can acquire American Caviar through aquaculture. Watch the adjectives, though. Much is “Russian” in genetics but American in birth. There is also still some truly American Sturgeon, some farmed and some wild. I trust that the Fish and Wildlife Services across our country have a grip on the populations of the various fish and are handling the permits to fish them commercially accordingly. I still have homework to do.
One of the wild varieties you will encounter is called Hackleback. It is a member of the sturgeon clan and has the telltale appearance. I find the eggs to be lovely, and this is what we eat on our hunting week. My friend Jane acquires it from Walter’s Caviar in Derian, Georgia. Yes, I said Georgia Caviar. Yes, I mean the Georgia that is in the United States. For just over $300 you can have delivered a rather massive 12.5 ounce tin of black caviar that is compared favorably to Sevruga. I have found it this year to be slightly stronger than usual and with a slightly grassy flavor. No one else thought “grassy” but that is my wine word for the day. It was a stronger caviar, but it wasn’t the least bit “fishy”. If you worry that caviar tastes fishy, it really isn’t, strangely enough.
But while the word caviar, used alone, refers to only sturgeon eggs, there is a whole raft of roe from other fish that is not only delightful, but far less costly. This is where the rubber meets the road in my book. Are you in it because it tastes good? If you are you should start trying some of the other roes. In the U.S., as long as the word caviar is preceded with the name of the fish from which it comes, it can still be called caviar. Again, look at the labels. Ask questions. There is salmon roe, which has a lovely orange-red glow about it. Funny thing, in my early life I only used salmon eggs as trout fishing bait and I distinctly remember thinking that anyone who would eat the stuff must be insane. Yet it is very well liked. Whitefish has a tasty roe. In fact, I believe whitefish roe is often flavored with peppers or wasabi for a completely different angle. That is not my thing so I’ll leave the flavored products to you.
But, my favorite non-sturgeon caviar is Bowfin. This comes from a fish known in Louisiana as the Choupique. It is also an ancient variety of fish but it looks nothing like the sturgeon. It is not exactly prized for its meat, and some consider it a “trash fish” but the eggs are great. The caviar is a nutty brown color and the flavor is mild. Of all of the people I have served it to of late, it is especially well liked by those who haven’t eaten a lot of caviar or “odd foods” because it is mild and the eggs are small. And the price is very modest, all things considered.
You need not venture outside of the U.S. to get good caviar anymore. Though, there are impressive farming operations all over the globe. I would love to be able to do a true caviar tasting one day and serve from a dozen different big tins, with bowfin, hackleback, farmed Caspian varieties and really taste them all side by side, to see which ones I truly like the best. I think it would be fascinating. More likely though, once a year or twice a year, I might indulge in a little bit of caviar, and enjoy it for exactly what it is. I can say that I likely will not ever eat wild Caspian sturgeon roe any time in the near future. I don’t need to and I don’t want to. I feel complicit in the decline of the fishery as it is, for a few eggs I may have eaten (and may have flicked off) of a deviled egg I was served in 1988 that may or may not have been wild Caspian caviar on top. Mindless eating so often refers to eating too much. I think the term ought to be rebranded as eating without thinking about what you are eating, as opposed to how much.
Plus, when you can have a treat like the Bowfin at $80 for a few ounces, without feeling like you are spending an immoral amount of money on food, the motivation to spend $800 on another roe goes down a bit, at least for me. Plus, I truly get a kick out of the idea of eating regional American caviar. It is fun, it is special, and it supports American fishermen. At least I can say that. Yes, I’ll spend $300 on fish eggs, but it supports American fishermen. Yes, sometime I might spend an even more astonishing sum on farmed Californian sturgeon roe, but at least I’m supporting American entrepreneurs.
I am open to criticism here. I am not a connoisseur. But I am a fascinated, regular, run of the mill, person who likes interesting foods. It may be a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. I haven’t tasted enough of the “real stuff” to call out the true believers on taste. But I do think buying American farmed and American wild (carefully monitored) caviar is the right thing to do if you are crazy enough to eat caviar at all. Here are my sources for Hackleback and Bowfin if you want to join me in an occasional splurge. There is no better way to tell you that fish eggs are tasty than to let you know that in the process for researching caviar for a talk I recently gave, I served it with dinner on several festive occasions. Both of my children ate each of these types of caviar and have declared them to be most tasty, though they were vastly relieved to know that 1000 little fish were not, in fact, going to hatch in their own bellies. Spoiled, a little. Learning along with me, definitely.
Also, the Dallas Central Market carries Petrossian Caviar, as well as some of the flavored whitefish options.
Amongst the numerous articles and websites I have consulted in my caviar education, I have read the following three books, which I have very much enjoyed:
Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy by Inga Saffron
The Philosopher’s Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar and the Geography of Desire by Richard Adams Carey
Caviar, A Global History by Nichola Fletcher