Russian Sturgeon Caviar: Pearls of Luxury

By Allen Fung

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What is Caviar?

The Source of Russian Caviar: The Sturgeon of the Caspian Sea

The History of Russian Caviar

Russian Caviar/Sturgeon at Risk

How is Caviar Connected to Russia’s National Identity?

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What is Caviar?

Caviar is the processed salted roe of various kinds of fish [1]. Roe is the fish’s fully ripe egg masses.  Fish roes consist of a pair of ovaries, which are the membranes or sacs holding the eggs.  The eggs are connected to each other and to the sac by connective tissues [2].  When producing caviar, the fish eggs are separated from the connective tissue of the ovaries by being passed through a mesh screen.  They are then salted and pasteurized [3].  Traditionally, caviar is either eaten alone, served on toast with sour cream and chives, served on crackers with cream cheese, served on Blini (pancakes), or served with bake potatoes with sour cream.  Some people prefer to eat caviar by itself in order to receive the full effect of its natural flavor.  Others, finding the natural flavor overwhelming, will eat caviar with garnish and other foods, such as crackers, Blini, etc [4].

The three most valuable types of caviar are beluga, osertra, and sevruga [5]

 

belugacaviar
Beluga Roe

 

Beluga roe is the largest of the three types and is the rarest; it has a delicate skin, considerable texture, and a visible “eye” in the middle of each individual egg [6].

 

osertracaviar
Osertra Roe

 

Osertra roe is less rare; it also has a delicate skin and ranges in color from dark brown to gray, and is often shaded with gold.  Osertra roe is known to have a unique taste of hazel nuts [7].

 

sevruga
Sevruga Roe

 

Sevruga roe is the least rare of the three; it has a delicate skin and its color ranges from a light to dark gray.  Since they are the least rare, they are also the least expensive; thus, sevruga roe is the most popular out of the three prized types of caviar [8].

 

The Source of Russian Caviar: The Sturgeon of the Caspian Sea

While caviar can come from various kinds of fish, the most famous and desirable caviars (Beluga, Osertra, and Sevruga), come from three species of sturgeon located exclusively in Caspian Sea.

 

caspian
Caspian Sea

 

The sturgeon is a large fish dating back to prehistoric times.  As far back as 250 million years ago, sturgeons were swimming in the world’s rivers [9].  Today, sturgeons live exclusively in the waters of the Northern Hemisphere.  Most sturgeons are anadromous, meaning that they live in the sea but need to commute to rivers in order to spawn, like salmon.  Sturgeons are best suited in estuaries where salt water and fresh water intermix; these waters contain immense numbers of food sources for sturgeons, such as worms and crayfish.  The Caspian Sea’s fame as the home for sturgeon is due to this fact. The Caspian is more like a salty lake then it is a sea; the Volga River pumps fresh water into the sea [10].

The sturgeon is a monstrous looking fish.  It has a large bloated body covered with a protective bony mantle.  Five rows of hard plates run along its sides and spine; these plates are like ranges of tiny mountains with the peaks being sharp enough to inflict injury on less hard-bodied creatures.  The sturgeon also has a big shark-like tail which can deliver a powerful blow.  The sturgeon also has an enormous head, but with no jaws or teeth.  It uses its lips to suck up organisms at the bottom of rivers and seas.  Because of its constant eating habits, the older a sturgeon gets, the larger it gets.  The beluga, which is the largest of all sturgeons, can live more than a century and can be twice as long as a pickup truck.  The largest beluga on record weighed 4,570 pounds and stretched twenty-eight feet [11].   

 

The History of Russian Caviar

The first recorded mention of caviar dates back to 1240, when the Mongols conquered Muscovy.  The leader of the Mongols, Batu Khan, visited an Orthodox Christian monastery in Uglich, north of Moscow [12].  The monks, eager to please their new overlord served him a feast with the last dish being hot apple preserves topped with a serving of salted sturgeon eggs.  Batu Khan must have enjoyed what he was eating because the monastery was not destroyed [13].

When people hear the word “caviar” today, they immediately think of a Russian luxury food item, that for centuries, only the wealthy and influential had access to.  However, it is interesting to note that caviar had a much more humble beginning, before it gained its status as a luxury food item.

Caviar first gained popularity in medieval Russia as a religious dish for Orthodox Christians.  In 1280, the Russian Orthodox Church formally sanctioned caviar, sturgeon, and other fish and fish products as foods that could be consumed during religious fasts, when meat and rich delicacies were forbidden [14].  While it may sound surprising now, in medieval times, caviar was a food tied to religion, eaten by both peasants and aristocrats alike [15].

During the 13th century, the Russian Orthodox Church was a powerful body that governed every aspect of Russian life.  Orthodox Christians were obligated to forgo meat for as many as two hundred days a year [16].  Because of this, fish became the popular meat of choice during the long periods of fasting.  Sturgeon was also popular because it had lots of meat and was nutritious.  However, since sturgeon meat was quite expensive, peasants were usually only able to buy the much cheaper roe.  By officially sanctioning caviar as a fasting food, the church made it easier for peasants to follow its religious doctrine [17].

Because of difficulties transporting and preserving caviar, this food of the Russian people was not widely known outside of the country.  Occasional shipments would reach other European countries such as England, France, and Italy, but the roe was so heavily salted and smell of warm caviar so strong, that kings found caviar revolting [18].  In the 18th century, when King Louis XV of France was offered a taste by an emissary of Peter the Great, the king was so disgusted, he spat the contents onto the elegant carpet of the Versailles palace! [19]

However, during the 19th century, technological advancements would allow caviar to be experienced more widely and frequently around the world.  The invention of refrigeration, along with the invention of the steamship, allowed for caviar to reach its destination quicker and in better condition [20].  Because of the use of these novel technological advancements, the price of caviar rose dramatically [21].  However, this did not scare away customers; on the contrary, it attracted more customers than ever.

During the 19th century, the costliness of caviar became one of its defining qualities.  Caviar’s ability to spoil easily, along with its exorbitant price, gave the food a status that appealed to the bourgeoisie in Europe [22].  With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, many people had the money to indulge in their hunger for exotic treats from faraway places.  The exoticism was further promoted by Europeans eating caviar raw, like the Russians did.  By the end of the 19th century, merchants and manufacturers would pay any price for caviar [23].

Besides excess money to spend, why did Europeans find Russian caviar so appealing?  The answer lies in the fact that Russian caviar derived much of its allure from its association with the wealthy Russian aristocracy.  With the Industrial Revolution, railroads were being built all across Europe, facilitating long-distance travel.  As a result, Russian nobles were showing up in large numbers like never before, in cities such as Paris and Berlin, with their entire entourage.  Western Europeans, with their lack of a wealthy aristocracy, were fascinated by the extravagance of the Russian aristocracy [24].

In Russia too, caviar was becoming a luxury commodity instead of a sacred religious food.  By the reign of Catherine the Great, caviar was associated with Butter Week, which was Russia’s version of Mardi Gras, the last indulgence before the start of the pre-Easter fast [25].  With caviar becoming a material indulgence, the Russian upper classes invented the rituals for indulging.  Wealthy nobles, rich merchants, and state officials would include caviar as part of the zakouski, which was a table of appetizers that preceded the main meal [26].  During this transition period of caviar being the poor man’s food to the food of the wealthy, common people were still able to afford caviar.  Price lists from the era of Catherine the Great list caviar as roughly the same price as butter [27].  Caviar was found being served in taverns that catered to the working class and in higher-end taverns that catered to nobles and merchants [28].

However, towards the end of the 19th century, caviar became more and more exclusive.  Increasingly, it became the food affordable only by the wealthy and elite.  By 1905, caviar prices were much too high for the working class Russian to pay [29].  With the Russian Revolution on the horizon, caviar had become a symbol of the growing disparity between the rich and the poor.  From being the food of the poor and devout, caviar had become the food of the rich and materialistic.

 

Russian Caviar/Sturgeon at Risk

 

belugasturgeon
Beluga Sturgeon

 

With Russian caviar being such a popular luxury food item, what is it status today?  Sadly, Russian caviar is in short supply due mainly to over fishing.  During Communist rule, the sturgeon of the Caspian Sea was protected by the Soviet Union.  In 1962, the Soviet Union imposed a ban on open-sea-fishing of the Caspian Sea [30].  At that time, The Soviet Union controlled four-fifths of the Caspian Sea, with the last fifth controlled by Iran.  However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, five nations, instead of two, now surround the Caspian Sea [31].  While Russia enforces a quota system, it cannot force its neighbors to do the same thing.  The quota system itself is problematic.  The quota is based in tons of fish caught not caviar, even though it is the caviar licensed fishermen are after.  As a result, when fishermen catch male sturgeon, they refuse to count it towards their quota.  By not counting the male sturgeon, fishermen enable themselves to catch even more females [32].  As a result, the female sturgeons have become very rare. 

In addition to over fishing, the black market trade of caviar smuggled from Russia and other neighboring nations is threatening the survival of the sturgeon [33].  Poachers can make huge profits off a luxury food item in high demand.  Other factors contributing to the demise of the sturgeon include environmental pollution and invasion of exotic species [34].  While the sturgeon of the Caspian Sea is on the endangered species list, it might be too late [35]

 

How is Caviar Connected to Russia’s National Identity?

While it is tragic enough that the sturgeon, as a species, might possibly cease to exist in the near future if over fishing, poaching, and destruction of its habitat continues, how will this effect Russia?  As the history of Russian caviar illustrates, caviar has been a major part of Russian culture for many centuries.  What is unique about caviar in relation to Russia’s national identity is that it was a food experienced by all kinds of Russians.  While the poor ate it, so did the rich; while the religiously devout ate it, so did materialistic, cosmopolitan members of society.  Up to the 20th century, all Russians could relate to caviar; it was something that they all ate, regardless of social status or economic background; it was a unifier, not a divider.

In addition, caviar was something Russians could be proud of; it was a food commodity that was in high demand in the rest of Europe.  Not only was it in high demand, it was also considered a luxury item; a food that Europeans associated with the affluent aristocracy of Russia.  Europeans were intoxicated with the allure of the wealthy Russian aristocracy, and by obtaining caviar; they believed in their own minds, that they too could have a taste, figuratively and literally, of this exotic lifestyle.  Russia had something that other European countries did not; caviar gave them worldwide recognition and admiration.  For a country long plagued by foreign invasion, internal class conflict, and lack of technological and scientific advancement in comparison to other European countries, caviar was the one bright spot for Russia and its people.

Today, caviar, along with vodka, is one of only several Russian products that carry a feeling of luxury and cultural distinction.  Russian pride is partly built on the long history and success/demand of caviar.  While there are many other kinds of caviar available, from other nations, including America and Iran, Russian caviar is the most famous and most highly prized.  When one hears the word caviar, one thinks of Russia immediately. The disappearance of Russian caviar would be devastating to national pride.  In addition, so many Russians, throughout the centuries, have made their living off caviar.  The Russian sturgeon fishermen are an important part of Russian society.  With the disappearance of the sturgeon, these fishermen will be out of work and a whole society and culture within Russia will disappear along with it.  

Many would agree that it is quite impressive for a food item to be popularly associated with only one nation for a span of more than seven hundred years.  As such, caviar has engrained itself into Russian history and culture, and as a result, its identity too. While today, caviar might not be eaten by all Russians, it is still thought of as a distinctly Russian food.  The luxuriousness that is associated with it only gives it more prestige.  For the Russians, it is something they can be proud of; a symbol of Russia and its people.  However, the loss of Russian caviar will forever damage the Russian national identity.  While the history of Russian caviar will continue to exist, the prestige, the livelihood of people involved, and the culture that grew out of it will be lost; only memories and stories will remain.

 

(11/21/2005)

 

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Footnotes

 

1. V. Sternin and I. Dore, Caviar: The Resource Book (Moscow: Cultura, 1993) 59.

2. ibid.

3. ibid.

4.  V. Sternin and I. Dore, 183-184.

5.  Meredith B.Gordon, 2002, Such Stuff as Dreams are Made of: The Story of Caviar, from Prehistory to Present, LEDA at Harvard Law School, Retrieved November 5, 2005, from, http://leda.law.harvard.edu/leda/data/504/Gordon.html.

6. ibid.

7. ibid.

8. ibid.

9.  Ingra Saffron, Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy (New York: Broadway Books, 2002) 30.

10. ibid.

11.  Saffron, 33.

12.  Saffron, 46.

13.  Saffron, 47.

14.  Saffron, 53.

15.  Saffron, 47.

16.  Saffron, 53.

17. ibid.

18. Saffron, 54.

19. Saffron, 61.

20. Saffron, 70-71.

21. Saffron, 71.

22. ibid.

23. ibid.

24. Saffron, 72.

25. Saffron, 73.

26. ibid.

27. Saffron, 74.

28. Saffron, 75.

29. Saffron, 76.

30. Saffron, 14.

31. ibid.

32. Saffron, 15.

33. John T. Fakler, 2003, Economy, dwindling fish hamper caviar industry, South Florida: The Business Journal, Retrieved November 5, 2005, from, http://www.sturgeonaquafarms.com/pressroom/2003%20Economy,%20dwindling%20fish%20hamper%20caviar%20industry.htm

34. ibid.

35. Saffron, 16.

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