Champagne. Cheese. Cake. Caviar. So many goodies start with the letter “C” – and many of them are quite luxurious foodstuffs. Caviar is one of the most luxurious of all. At the extreme, caviar has been packaged in solid gold tins and sold at secret auction to the highest bidder.
Although many of us are familiar with the signature catchphrase from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous – “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” – I recently learned of the food’s more humble origins. Originally, it was sturgeon meat itself that first became popular. The sturgeon’s eggs, before they became prized, were actually fed to livestock and eaten as everyday food. Where did I glean this? I have been enjoying a group of books called “The Edible Series.” Each book in the series focuses on one food product and my most recent acquisition was Caviar: A Global History by Nichola Fletcher. Caviar is something that I knew little about (other than the fact that I liked it!) before I spotted this book and so my interest was immediately piqued.
It is unclear where caviar was first made – in the sense of how it is preserved today – but early traditions existed in Russia, Iran, Egypt, China, Greece, Persia and Turkey. It wasn’t until the reign of Peter the Great in Russia that caviar made its way into Western Europe. It was slow to take off but by the 18th century and the reign of Catherine the Great, caviar had become established as a luxury good.
Technically, “caviar” refers to the eggs of one of the roughly 25 species of sturgeon in existence today. Of those 25, a few are particularly well-known in the caviar world: Acipenser gueldenstaedtii, A. nudiventris, A. persicus, A. ruthenus, A. stellatus and Huso huso (aka Beluga). Probably the most famous sources of wild sturgeon caviar are Russia and Iran, both of which border the shallow, brackish Caspian Sea where the fish is found. Use of the word “caviar” for the eggs of any other type of fish than sturgeon should specify the fish variety on the label.
The sturgeon is a funny looking fish, like something out of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. It was no surprise for me to learn that, as a species, the sturgeon dates back to the Lower Jurassic period – roughly 200 million years ago. These fish can grow to be tremendous – in 1736, a sturgeon caught in the Volga estuary weighed over 2 tons. These days, however, due to overfishing, the fish rarely have a chance to get that large.
When I read about the life cycle of a sturgeon, I was reminded of salmon I had seen swimming upstream in Alaska. For the most part, sturgeon live in the ocean but then swim up rivers to lay their eggs. Their tails are asymmetrical when you look at them top to bottom and the longer, top-part of their tail apparently helps them battle currents. A sturgeon will make this upstream pilgrimage many times in the course of its life. And, these huge fish can live a very long time – sometimes more than 100 years.
Traditionally, caviar is harvested from wild sturgeon by hand – quickly and efficiently. After death, the fish releases an enzyme that spoils the eggs or, even worse, can make someone sick (not unheard of with black market caviar). After the eggs are removed, they are gently passed through a sieve in order to remove the membrane that encases them. Next, they are washed and salted. The quantity and type of the salt is important – as with anything cured, the salt has a profound effect on flavor. Some caviar processors use pharmaceutical grade salt while others use fleur de sel from France. Once the caviar is salted, it is generally packed in small tins, the like of which have been used since the early 20th century. As time passes, the caviar absorbs the salt and swells, rounding out and, as a result, pushing out excess air from the tin.
In addition to salt, I was interested to learn that Russian caviar has a tiny amount of the natural mineral borax (sodium tetraborate) added as well. Historically, Russians would store their caviar in barrels and bury them in the earth. The soil around the Caspian Sea is rich with borax which acted as a preservative and had a slight sweetening effect (so less salt was needed to preserve the caviar). Borax is banned in the US (and Japan) so, by comparison, caviar purchased in the States will tend to taste a tad saltier.
Overfishing, a problem for many species of fish, is an acute issue for sturgeon. In cold waters, the fish often do not reach egg-bearing age until they are 20 years old. With humans in a rush to harvest caviar as soon as possible and many fishermen flaunting preservation laws, few fish are left to actually use their eggs to repopulate the waters. In 2001, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) reacted to increasing levels of poaching and black market activity by halting caviar trade by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan. In a press release, CITES noted that “the fifth Caspian state, Iran, was not subject to the caviar ban, but, commendably, joined the regional effort.” Iran has been working to create a sustainable caviar industry, building hatcheries that release 20 million+ baby sturgeon into the sea each year. However, despite these efforts and their simultaneous efforts to combat pollution, a quota agreement could not be reached in 2009 and all exports from the region were suspended. In 2010, the five Caspian countries were able to reach a quota agreement that was acceptable to CITES and exports resumed.
Looking to the future, methods are being developed to harvest sturgeon eggs without having to kill the fish. Sturgeon farms are being developed and there is increasing caviar production in other parts of the world, reducing pressure on the Caspian Sea region.
This brings us to the United States. Many folks are not aware that there are sturgeon in our own native waters and, here at the shop, we order caviar through Browne Trading Company, based in Portland, Maine. Some of their sources for caviar are sustainable aquafarms in California that raise American White sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus), a strain of the species that is native to the Pacific. From the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, they source wild Shovelnose Sturgeon roe and, from Florida, the Browne Trading Company sources Siberian sturgeon roe (A. baerii) harvested at the first aquafarm in the US to raise this particular strain of the fish. Outside of the US, Browne Trading Company sources sturgeon caviar from Israel (Caviar Galilee – A. gueldenstaedtii), China (Imperial Huso – Huso dauricus), Germany (A. gueldenstaedtii) and Kazakhstan (A. gueldenstaedtii).
In addition to sturgeon caviar, roe is also harvested from a variety of other fish found in American waters. These provide a more affordable but still tasty option for folks. Spoonbill or Paddlefish caviar is harvested from fish that grow to maturity in the wild, flourishing in tributaries of the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers. Whitefish caviar, bright yellow in color, is sourced in cold lake water in the western part of the country and bright orange salmon roe comes from Alaska. To round out the geographic tour of our country, wild “Choupique” Bowfin fish in Louisiana yield small, black-brown roe that turn red when baked.
At Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge, Tripp, cheesemonger and domestic cheese buyer, is also our caviar buyer. Recently, he received three samples from Browne Trading Company in preparation for the holidays and I got to tag along for the tasting (tough, I know!). We tasted across three different strains of sturgeon, and tasted both domestic and imported:
SIBERIAN CAVIAR (USA, A. baerii): We agreed that this caviar had a slightly vegetal taste, the pearls were tender and this was the roe with the strongest aroma.
WHITE STURGEON (USA, A. transmontanus): Tripp identified an almost cheddary note to this roe and, once I tasted it, I could not have agreed more. Saltier than the Siberian, it was similarly tender texture-wise.
PRIME OSETRA CAVIAR GALILEE (Israel, A. gueldenstaedtii): This was the most briney or fish tasting of the three, with a touch of bitterness. The Osetra had the greatest length of flavor and the firmest pearls.
We had a lot of fun tasting and comparing the three caviars. Next time, I think we just need to break open a bottle of bubbly and we’ll be all set!
To speak with us about placing a special order for caviar, please give us a ring at our Cambridge shop (617-354-4750) or our South End location (617-350-6996).
If you are interested in further reading, check out Ms. Fletcher’s book, Caviar: A Global History, which was the source for much of the information in this post.