First enjoyed in ancient times, caviar continues to hold a place of honor among the world’s gustatory delights
Cambria design shown: Black Rock Matte™ (Gensler Product Design Consultant) Photography by Steve Henke
While the roe of many fish, including trout and salmon, are widely enjoyed today, it is the eggs of the mammoth and prehistoric Caspian Sea sturgeon—the true caviar—that first seduced palates. The ancient Persians are believed to be the first to make a habit of harvesting the eggs for both sustenance and the medicinal power they attributed to these black pearls. For centuries, many peoples savored the meat of the sturgeon, but caviar’s journey from a disagreeable bit to be thrown away to a treat worth splurging on, was a long one.
In 13th century Russia, caviar was on the fish-driven menu of everyday Orthodox Christians—a dish to be enjoyed on holy days when meat was a no-no. Well into the 18th century, a peasant could afford to consume it as much as any prince. But within a few decades, improved shipping methods not only enhanced the quality of caviar, but sent prices soaring, transforming it from a near staple to a costly specialty. Still, those who could indulge did, liberally. One aristocratic family owned a cut-glass barrel that held 45 pounds of the stuff—replenished daily.
Fisherman fishing beluga sturgeon in the Volga River in Russia in 1867. Illustration by Gratissimo via Getty Images
In the 19th century, a savvy Hamburg cooper named Johannes Dieckmann went into the fish exporting business with his son-in-law. Wise to the growing taste for sturgeon eggs in Germany, they soon started producing their own caviar. By the closing years of the century, demand for the delicacy across Europe was so great that Dieckmann & Hansen gave up packing herring and other fish to focus exclusively on caviar, opening outlets in Paris, London, and Stockholm. In 1873, German immigrant Henry Schacht began exporting eggs taken from sturgeon swimming in the Delaware River. In time, 90% of the world’s caviar actually came from U.S. waters (much of which was sent abroad, then sold to American consumers as a Russian import).
By the time Armenian-born Mouchegh and Melkoum Petrossian opened their fine food boutique in Paris in 1920, caviar’s reputation as a treat for the elite was set. It was so popular among the smart set, that F. Scott Fitzgerald (who certainly didn’t shun the high life), dismissed it as “the height of affectation.” But for future food writer M. F. K. Fisher, sampling sturgeon with her father at the Café de la Paix, had nothing to do with being chic. Looking back at her 23-year-old self in a piece that appeared in The New Yorker in 1968, she recalled, “We ate three portions apiece, tacitly knowing it could never happen again that anything would be quite so mysteriously perfect in both time and space.”
Caviar’s links to the regal and the worldly certainly factor into its high price point. But so too does its production. Female sturgeon can take up to a decade or more to come to maturity and harvesting, separating, and salt curing the unfertilized eggs is a laborious process. Over time, the demand for true Russian caviar—a market strictly controlled by Moscow in the Soviet years—nearly outstripped supply, decimating fish populations in the Caspian and Black seas. The first significant efforts to protect stocks came in 1998 when the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) initiated trade regulations. In 2005, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service banned the import of caviar from the Caspian’s Beluga sturgeon, whose eggs are deemed the best of the best by caviar connoisseurs. As poaching, pollution, and the black market continued to compromise the industry, efforts to produce quality caviar from farm-raised fish grew. Today, aquafarms across Europe, as well as in China, Israel, and the United States, provide connoisseurs with sturgeon roe.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, caviar was often heavily salted in order to better preserve it for transport. Today, the eggs are salted much, much less, allowing the true character of the roe to shine. Depending on the species of sturgeon from which it is harvested, caviar can be briny or nutty, with a creamy texture. Like a fine wine, whose character emerges from its bouquet and mouthfeel as much as it does from the way it hits the tastebuds, caviar is an experience.
Like many of life’s luxuries, caviar’s allure is inseparable from its preciousness, its history, and the romance we have spun around it. It isn’t for everyone. But then again, neither are oysters or champagne. Like any hallmark of sophistication, it can seem silly to those immune to its spell. But extravagance is never quite rational. After all, you don’t have to appreciate automotive technology to keep a Bentley Flying Spur in your garage. And as any luxury watch dealer will tell you, no one buys a Patek Philippe Nautilus to tell what time it is. But for true caviar lovers, those for whom even a few spoonfuls on rare occasions is worth the expense, it really is all about taste.