Where Does Caviar Come From?
Caviar is a delicacy consisting of salt-cured fish-eggs of the Acipenseridae family. The roe can be “fresh” (non-pasteurized) or pasteurized, with pasteurization reducing its culinary and economic value. Caviar is eaten as a garnish or a spread.
Caviar is the roe of the female members of the sturgeon family. These fish are found in northern and central Asia, Europe and North America. The best quality black caviar comes from sturgeon caught during the winter months in the estuaries of rivers which flow into the Baltic Sea. It is regarded as a great delicacy and has been known in Western Europe since the sixteenth century.
Traditionally, the term caviar refers only to roe from wild sturgeon in the Caspian and Black Sea (Beluga, Ossetra and Sevruga caviars). Depending on the country, caviar may also be used to describe the roe of other fish such as salmon, steelhead, trout, lumpfish, whitefish, carp, and other species of sturgeon.
Shakespeare mentions it in his play Hamlet. In Russia and Eastern Europe, the coarser quality caviar is a staple food and is traditionally accompanied by gulps of vodka.
When caviar is prepared, the roe is carefully strained to remove fibers and fat. It is then salted and packed into small barrels, jars or tins. Its salty flavor and grainy texture are an acquired taste. But like all expensive foods, it is a taste thought by many people to be worth acquiring.
Caviar is usually served as a hors d’oeuvre with bread or toast, or on small biscuits with drinks. As well as the gray and black caviar, there is also red caviar. This is prepared from the roe of salmon and is considered by experts in these matters to be of inferior quality.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, roe from any fish not belonging to the Acipenseriformes species (including Acipenseridae, or sturgeon sensu stricto, and Polyodontidae or paddlefish) are not caviar, but “substitutes of caviar.” This position is also adopted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the United States Customs Service, and France.
The term is also used to describe dishes that are perceived to resemble caviar, such as “eggplant caviar” (made from eggplant) and “Texas caviar” (made from black-eyed peas).
The four main types of caviar are Beluga, Sterlet, Ossetra, and Sevruga. The rarest and costliest is from beluga sturgeon that swim in the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. Wild caviar production was suspended in Russia between 2008 and 2011 to allow wild stocks to replenish.
Azerbaijan and Iran also allow the fishing of sturgeon off their coasts. Beluga caviar is prized for its soft, extremely large (pea-size) eggs. It can range in color from pale silver-gray to black.
It is followed by the small golden sterlet caviar which is rare and was once reserved for Russian, Iranian and Austrian royalty. Next in quality is the medium-sized, gray to brownish osetra (ossetra), and the last in the quality ranking is smaller, gray sevruga caviar.
Cheaper alternatives have been developed from the roe of whitefish and the North Atlantic salmon. The American caviar industry got started when Henry Schacht, a German immigrant, opened a business catching sturgeon on the Delaware River.
He treated his caviar with German salt and exported a great deal of it to Europe. At around the same time, sturgeon was fished from the Columbia River on the west coast, also supplying caviar.
American caviar was so plentiful that it was given away at bars for the same reason modern bars give away peanuts – to make patrons thirsty. In the wake of overfishing, the harvest and sale of black caviar was banned in Russia in 2007. There was an unsuccessful effort to resume export (in 2010, limited to 150 kg).