Caviar: A Gentleman’s Guide To One Of Life’s True Luxuries

Caviar

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, caviar is the salt-cured roe (fish eggs) of the sturgeon, the common name for the approximately 26 species of fish within the Acipenseridae family. Of those 26 species, four are most prized for their roe: Beluga, Sterlet; Ossetra; and Sevruga. Traditionally, however, despite the existence of sturgeon in many regions of the Northern Hemisphere, and despite the various species of sturgeon which produce roe suitable for high-quality caviar, the word “caviar” was used to describe only the roe harvested from the prized wild Beluga sturgeon of the Caspian and Black Seas (the Caspian Sea actually being a saltwater lake—the world’s largest).

The History of Caviar as a Food

The English word “caviar,” first appearing in print in 1591, is believed to derive from the Persian “khav-yar,” which means “cake of power.” The ancient Persians living by the Kura River would eat the roe for medicinal purposes, believing that it imparted stamina. But as far back as 2400 BCE, two millennia before the Persians, the Egyptians were known to preserve fish eggs in salt . It is believed, however, that the actual practice of preparing sturgeon roe with salt, which is today one of the defining characteristics of caviar as a delicacy, is a tradition which derives from the Chinese practice of salting carp eggs in order to flavor and preserve them. In the 4th century BCE, Aristotle describes the delicacy of sturgeon eggs being brought into banquet rooms on trays decorated with flowers, heralded by the sounds of trumpets. And by the Middle Ages, though caviar was much more abundant than it is today, it had already attained a reputation as an elitist food. England’s King Edward II (1284 – 1330) issued a proclamation requiring all within his realm in possession of caviar to relinquish the delicacy to the sovereign. By the middle of the 1500s, caviar was being consumed in France and, shortly thereafter, in the finest homes all across Europe. Interestingly, the Caspian Sea was not the only place where the Beluga sturgeon could be found. The species was known to abound in Italy’s Po river, where the fish was being captured and processed for caviar by the 16th century—so much so that in 1753 there was a diplomatic war between the Papal State and the Venice Republic over the rights of sturgeon-fishing in the Po, the natural border between the two states. But it was the Russian tzars who would give caviar its status as a luxury item, it being a staple on their royal tables. And as late of the 20th century, Tzar Nicholas II (1868 – 1918) collected an annual tax from fishermen, the specified method of payment being caviar. By the 1870s Henry Schacht, a German immigrant to America, had developed a caviar business based on sturgeon from the Delaware River. And shortly thereafter, Lake sturgeon from the Hudson and Columbia Rivers, as well as Shortnose sturgeon from the Atlantic and White sturgeon from the North American coast of the Pacific, were being used for the production of caviar. By 1900, the United States was producing 90 percent of the world’s caviar, and Schacht’s company had made the product truly international—to the point where American-produced caviar would be shipped abroad and re-imported to the United States as the more highly regarded “Russian caviar.” And, according to the state of Pennsylvania, 90 percent of the caviar sold in Europe as “Russian caviar” was actually being produced in the United States.

With the increased production, caviar soon lost its “exclusive” appeal. And it was not uncommon, by the end of the 1800s, for caviar to be offered as a compliment at bars—the way peanuts are used today—with the hopes that its salty flavor would induce thirst and encourage the purchase of drinks. But all good things must come to an end. And by the early decades of the 1900s, most supplies of American sturgeon had been depleted to the point where production was no longer commercially viable. And some species were on the verge of extinction.

The Sturgeon

The sturgeon, native to the Northern Hemisphere’s subtropical, temperate, and sub-Arctic lakes, rivers, and coastlines of Eurasia, Europe, and North America, is one of the oldest bony fishes, dating to the very late Triassic period, some 250 million years ago. (No species of sturgeons are known to naturally exist below the equator). Since the Upper Cretaceous period (from 100 to 65 million years ago—around the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs), however, the sturgeon has undergone very little morphological evolution, which accounts for its uncanny tolerance for wide ranges in habitat salinity and temperature.

Sturgeons are distinctive because of their elongated bodies (7 – 18 ft. at adulthood in the case of the Beluga) which are primarily cartilaginous and lacking in a central vertebra; they possess toothless, flattened, snout-like mouths, equipped with four barbels (tactile organs), which are used to stir up and detect the crustaceans and small fish upon which they feed (Some large species are known to swallow whole salmon); and rather than scales, sturgeons are partially covered with bony plates called “scutes.” Beluga sturgeons in the Caspian Sea have been known to grow to a length of approximately 18 feet and weigh over 3,000 pounds, making them amongst the world’s largest fishes. And, interestingly, the roe of a sturgeon can account for 25 to 50 percent of the creature’s total body weight.

Most sturgeon are anadromous: They live in saltwater but migrate to fresh water in order to spawn (which typically occurs annually, though some species, such as Beluga, spawn less frequently). They thrive in brackish waters and are benthic (bottom) -feeders. Very few species are known to venture into the open waters beyond coastal areas, and some are even known to live their entire lives in bodies of fresh water. Typically, the sturgeon feeds and spawns in river deltas and estuaries; and unlike salmon for example, which expire after spawning, the Beluga sturgeon, which reaches sexual maturity between ages 20 and 25 (Some species, like the Sevruga, attain sexual maturity between ages 7 and 10, though their caviar is considered best between ages 8 and 22), can spawn several times in their long lives, which, if left to the devices of nature, may well exceed 100 years, making them one of the longest-lived fishes.

Types of Caviar

Though various species of sturgeon live in many regions of the Northern Hemisphere, from parts of Central Asia to the west coast of North America and in many areas of Europe, traditionally, the term “caviar” came to refer only to roe from wild sturgeon found in the Caspian and Black Seas: primarily Beluga, but also Sterlet, Ossetra, and Sevruga caviar. But today, depending on the country, the word “caviar” may be used to describe the roe of various types of fish such as salmon and trout, lumpfish, whitefish, steelhead, and other species of sturgeon. However, those alternative roes are not nearly as esteemed as those to which the term “caviar” is traditionally applied. And neither are they as costly: Based on 2012 pricing, Beluga caviar could be obtained for $2,500 per pound ( or $5,500 per kilogram), but also for as much as $16,000 per kilogram (or $7,500 per pound). On the other hand, the alternative or “substitute” roes, sometimes disparagingly referred to as “the rogue roes,” such as from salmon or lumpfish, can be obtained in regular supermarkets around the world at affordable prices. Today, in most countries, substitute caviar must be preceded by the name of the fish from which it is obtained: for example, “salmon caviar,” “lumpfish caviar,” or “trout caviar”; whereas the caviar procured from the sturgeon is simply labeled, “caviar.” (Buyers should beware—à la “caviar emptor”—of products labeled, “American sturgeon caviar,” the roe of the Mississippi paddlefish, a distant relative of the true sturgeons. In 1998, the U.S. Government ruled that the Mississippi paddlefish is a sturgeon for food purposes. That designation, however, has neither international nor epicurean application. In any case, the medium-sized roe, which comes in various shades of gray, is regarded by some experts to have an “earthy” or “muddy” flavor).

Still, today, despite the aquaculture of sturgeon in Italy, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, and Spain, for example, the four most highly regarded types of caviar—Beluga, Sterlet, Ossetra, and Sevruga—are harvested by the nations of Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan from the wild sturgeon living in the Caspian Sea, and by the nations of Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, and Turkey in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. But of all the caviar-producing countries, Iran and Russia reign supreme.

Caviar is rated based on the wild or farmed status of the fish from which it is obtained, the size and color of the roe, as well as by the method of processing. In general, roe from sturgeon caught in the wild is preferred to roe from farm-raised sturgeon; larger eggs are preferred to smaller eggs; light-colored caviar is more esteemed than darker; and “Malossal,” or lightly salted caviar is of a higher quality than pasteurized caviar. Eggs are sized as large, medium, and small. And light-colored caviar is rated at “000”; medium-colored caviar at “00”; and dark or black caviar at “0.” Also, caviar is labeled “fresh” or “pasteurized,” though “fresh” caviar is, in reality, a misnomer since roe, when extracted from the fish, is virtually tasteless; and caviar is aged in a brine for a period of one to four weeks before being packaged for sale.

Each of the four major varieties of caviar has its distinctive characteristics:

Beluga caviar is the most esteemed and costly of the commercially available caviars. Also known as “black caviar,” “black gold,” and “black pearls,” Beluga caviar is characterized by large, soft eggs that may attain the size of peas. Its texture is smooth, and its flavor, buttery. It ranges in color from pale silver-gray to black, the lighter-colored eggs tending to come from older fish. The rarest Beluga caviar is called the “Almas,” which means “diamond” in Russian, and has been known to sell for $25,000 per kilogram. It is harvested from hundred-year-old Beluga sturgeon and is pearlish-white in color. [Based on 2015 pricing, “Almas” produced from the eggs of the rare albino Iranian Beluga sturgeon between the ages of 60 and 100 sells for $34,500 per kilogram]. Today, because of preservation efforts, fewer than 100 egg-bearing Beluga sturgeon are caught in the wild each year.

Sterlet caviar is the most rare of the four major caviars since the Sterlet sturgeon, which attains a maximum length of about three feet and can weigh as much as 16 kg., was almost fished to the point of extinction. Today the fish, which reaches egg-producing age between ages four and 12, exists primarily in aquaculture facilities, and its caviar is almost impossible to obtain. Also referred to as “royal caviar” or “imperial caviar,” Sterlet caviar was once reserved for Persian shahs, Russian tzars, monarchs, and the Vatican, and is characterized by small to medium-sized, golden-colored eggs. (Authorities differ on the sources of this golden, “royal” or “imperial” caviar since Ossetra sturgeon over the age of 60, as well as albino Beluga and Ossetra surgeons of egg-bearing age, are also known to produce golden roe).

Ossetra caviar (also spelled “Osetra,” Oscietra,” and “Asestra”) is characterized by relatively firm, medium-sized eggs which come in various colors: whitish, golden-brown, brown, pearl-gray, and even black, the golden-brown variety being the least common. “Nutty” is often used by connoisseurs to describe the flavor of Ossetra caviar, but the color and flavor of the caviar are largely influenced by the diet of the fish that bears it. (Ossetra sturgeons reach egg-bearing age between 12 and 15 years old).

Sevruga caviar is the least eminent amongst the four major caviars, mainly because it is more available and is therefore less expensive. But because its flavor is the most intense, it is highly regarded by connoisseurs of fine caviar. Comparatively smaller and of a crunchier texture than the other major caviars, it is greenish-gray, blackish-gray, or black in color. Despite Sevruga caviar’s less-lofty position amongst the “big four,” it is placed significantly above the other types of caviar. (Sevruga sturgeon arrive at egg-bearing age between seven and 10 years old, their caviar being considered the best between ages eight and 22).

A Luxury Explained

Caviar is one of the world’s most expensive foods for several reasons: sturgeons can require up to 25 years to reach egg-bearing age; the traditional method of removing the precious roe from the fish results in the death of the fish; the production of caviar is labor-intensive; and the major caviar-producing sturgeons in the wild, which are much more revered by connoisseurs than their aquaculture counterparts, have been overfished to the point of endangerment or extirpation.

Traditionally, fishermen would stun the egg-laden female sturgeon, thereafter removing the eggs and destroying the fish in the process. And while sturgeon flesh is desirable (It was so heavily consumed in the United States in the late 1800s that it was dubbed “Atlantic beef”), its market value does not come close to comparing to that of the creature’s eggs. Consequently, a 30-year-old fish, for example, in its egg-bearing prime, which could have lived for another 70 or more years, producing young each year in order to keep the species thriving in the wild, would be killed for one yield of its precious cargo of roe. So as the demand for caviar increased, the population of sturgeon declined correspondingly, leaving many species on the verge of extinction. In more recent times, the egg sacks were surgically removed and the fish released back into the wild, but this method was exceedingly painful and stressful for the fish and has been outlawed in several countries. Today, the most humane and efficient method of procuring roe is the “stripping” method, which entails the anesthetization of the fish, followed by an ultrasound procedure to determine the best time for egg extraction, then the extraction of the eggs via a small incision along the urogenital muscle, thereby inducing the release of the eggs without overly stressing the fish. Unfortunately, however, this more humane method is unknown to many traditional harvesters of sturgeon roe.

After the egg sack containing thousands of eggs is removed, the eggs are gently, by hand, passed over a sieve in order to separate the eggs from the egg-sack membrane. The eggs are then repeatedly rinsed in cold water, and any damaged eggs and membrane particles are carefully removed by hand with tweezers. Thereafter, the eggs are salted in order to preserve their freshness and enhance their flavor. “Malossol” is the Russian word for “light salting.” In general, the best roes require little salting (3.5 to 5 percent, depending on the intended market), while inferior ones, such as those available in typical supermarkets, contain more salt, some as much as 11 percent. Today, with advancements in sanitation and refrigeration, the trend is to reduce the salt content of caviar. (Pasteurization—the process where “fresh” caviar is vacuum-packed into heat-treated glass jars or lacquered tins—is also possible, but the process, though it extends shelf life, reduces the gastronomic and economic values of the delicacy in that it tends to render the eggs more firm). The most desirable salt is a special, low-chlorine-content salt from the the Russian Astrakhan Steppe, which is stored for seven years to further reduce its chlorine content. (Even Iranian caviar producers import this special Russian salt). Traditionally, borax is added to the eggs to impart a special sweetness, but borax is no longer a legal food additive in the United States; consequently, caviar being exported to the U.S. does not contain borax, though it can still be found in caviar prepared for other markets.

“Fresh” or pasteurized caviar should be kept cool while being transported from the market. Fresh caviar, if stored in its sealed container at temperatures ranging from 26 to 34 degrees F., has a shelf life of between one and four weeks, depending on the degree of freshness at the time of acquisition. (The oil content of the caviar prevents it from freezing at those temperatures). And while some retailers suggest that caviar be frozen until it is ready for use, that recommendation is not advised since freezing may cause the eggs to rupture, resulting in the delicacy taking on a mushy, jam-like consistency, similar to that of the much-less-desirable “pressed caviar,” a product usually made from roe damaged while being processed for caviar. Pasteurized caviar should also be refrigerated and will keep for up to two months. Once opened, fresh caviar should be consumed within a day or two, while pasteurized caviar will typically last for about a week if refrigerated in an airtight container. But whether fresh of pasteurized, the expiration date should be observed. Caviar, upon its container being opened, should smell “briny” rather than “fishy.”

How to Eat Caviar

There was a time, in the days of Aristotle, when the arrival of caviar at the table would signal the end of a great meal. Today, caviar is more likely to be served before a meal as an appetizer, or in the midst of a meal as a garnish or complement.

Just as the owner of a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley should have a chauffeur, so should a gentleman who serves caviar have a caviar serving set. A well-appointed set should be comprised of a small dish for the caviar; a slightly larger dish into which ice is placed; and a small spoon. When presented to the diner, the dish containing the caviar is placed atop the dish containing the ice so that the caviar remains chilled as it is being consumed. Many designers—from Fabergé to Gucci to Baccarat—have created caviar sets of materials ranging from crystal to malachite to mother-of-pearl to tortoise shell. What is important is that neither the dish containing the caviar nor the spoon with which it is eaten be made of silver or any metal other than gold, for metals, as a result of oxidation, tend to impart a metallic flavor into the caviar, gold being the exception. Even a plastic spoon is better for eating caviar than one made of precious sterling silver.

Some hosts serve caviar with points of toast or atop very thin, unsalted wafers, while other gentlemen insist upon serving the delicacy with hard-boiled eggs, the whites and yolks chopped separately, and diced onions, with, perhaps, some sour cream. For the purist, however—and in the case of fine caviar, purity is paramount—nothing should come between a gentleman and his caviar…. For the purist, caviar is ceremoniously served at the dinner table as a course onto itself. And the tiny spoon should not be used to scoop up the precious roe the way a spoon is used to eat, for example, porridge, for that method is likely to rupture some of the delicate eggs. Instead, the spoon, while being held perpendicular to the dish, should be inserted into the caviar until the tip of the bowl of the spoon touches the base of the caviar dish. Thereafter, the wrist should be tilted so that a spoonful of the caviar can be lifted—the way a backhoe lifts soil—from the dish. The spoonful of caviar is then carefully conveyed to the mouth so as not to allow for even one precious egg to fall away. When caviar is being served from a communal dish, no more than two spoonfuls should be taken and placed onto one’s plate. (And, of course, special care should be taken to ensure that no extraneous material from one’s plate touches the serving spoon, thereby compromising the remainder of the caviar in the serving dish). Some hosts serve the finest champagne as a complement to fine caviar, but others insist that a shot of chilled vodka is the only appropriate accompaniment.

Preservation Efforts

The fossil record indicates that since the age of the dinosaurs, the sturgeon has successfully navigated the Northern Hemisphere’s coastlines, lakes, rivers, deltas, and estuaries, thereby qualifying as one of evolution’s great success stories. And while man has been known to delight in the sturgeon’s roe for over 2,000 years, it is only within the last 200 years, as a result of humans’ seemingly insatiable appetite for caviar, that the sturgeon’s existence has been threatened. Because sturgeon reach reproductive age relatively slowly, and because some species spawn every four or five years, rather than every year, sturgeon are innately sensitive to adverse conditions. Furthermore, because the sturgeon—at the hands of mankind—has been subjected to overfishing; habitat destruction as a result of pollution; interrupted spawning runs due to dam construction; and a lack of enforceable protective measures, the survival of each of the 26 species of sturgeon is, at best, precarious.

Currently, there are several international measures in effect, the aim of which is to restore and protect populations of sturgeon in the wild, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) being one of the most notable. Under CITES, international commercial trade in two species of sturgeon is prohibited, and trade in the remaining species requires a CITES permit from the management company of the exporting nation. But such measures, while noble, are not sufficient to protect a species where the economic incentive to violate such agreements is ever-present, and where some species of sturgeon, even under protected conditions, can require a century to return to sustainable abundance in the wild.

Gentlemen, therefore, must play their part if the sturgeon, one of the natural world’s most ancient creatures, and caviar, one of life’s true gastronomical luxuries, are to exist for the the enjoyment of future generations: For the foreseeable future, 21st-century gentlemen should purchase only certifiably farm-grown caviar; should support efforts to replenish wild populations of the sturgeon as well as encourage aquaculture research; and promote the consumption of substitute caviar. A gentleman must be ever cognizant of the delicate equilibrium of Earth and her creatures. And a gentleman must be a steward of the planet from whence he came.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s