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By: A.I. Makki

  What is caviar? Most people would have probably heard about caviar, but may have never actually tasted any. It’s a delicacy of fish eggs, or roe, from sturgeon primarily found in the icy waters of the Caspian and Black seas, which separate Russia from the Middle East.  Ninety percent of the true caviar produced in the world comes from the Caspian Sea where the environment is most conducive for producing the finest sturgeon in the world. Caviar, looks like small grainy particles – black, grey, yellow and brown – but a few varieties of caviar may be as large as peas.

  Some believe that the ancient Greeks were eating sturgeon centuries before the Persians and the Turks discovered it. The fish’s image also appears on the Egyptian temple carvings in Luxor, and on ancient coins found in Tunisia suggesting the sturgeon’s range once extended along the entire coast of North Africa. The early Greek travelers have described two types of sturgeon that was being sold in the markets of Alexandria. During Roman times, fresh sturgeon meat was a rare and expensive delicacy served as a special dish during feasts and banquets. It is known through Pliny that the Romans celebrated the defeat of Carthage by serving sturgeon at a banquet with elaborate fanfare. Cicero, writing in the first century before Christ describes it as “a fish that fit for only a few choice palates”. The absence of any clear references to caviar in the ancient texts suggests that many knew about the fish sturgeon, while caviar remained unknown in the early years of recorded history.

  The name ‘caviar’ given to the eggs of sturgeon, along with the delicacy it denotes, reached Europe via Turkey from Iran and came into the English language from the Turkish word ‘Khavyar’ sometime late in the sixteenth century.  The leading linguists of the twentieth century believe the word to be of Iranian origin, and connected with the Persian word “Chav-jar,” which means a “cake of power.’ It is believed that the ancient Azerbaijanis and the Persians were the first people to taste roes, and looked at it as a medicine that cured many diseases.

  The first unambiguous references to caviar appeared during the medieval times in the thirteenth century in Russia. The Mongols under Batu Khan – the grandson of the formidable Genghis Khan – had captured Moscow from the Muscovite princes in the year 1240. A few months later, Batu Khan left his headquarters along the Volga with his wife Yildiz to pay a visit to his new subjects at a nearby village. The Mongol hordes under Batu Khan had conquered all of Central Russia, and had laid waste to Kiev, before burning Moscow to the ground. Now, the Asian warlord wanted to show the Russians of the conquered lands that he could also be a civilized ruler.

  The Russians prepared for him on his arrival an elaborate feast that had a whole roasted sturgeon among its many courses. As a final show of their respect, the villagers presented at the conclusion of the meal the final dish of hot apple preserves topped with a dollop of salted sturgeon eggs. It is said that Yildiz was so sickened by the smell of warm caviar that she was forced to retire to her room without tasting the dish. However, Batu Khan - the battle-hardened veteran – toughened by years of military rations, stayed on the course. He must have liked the dish enough to preserve an account of the dish in his memoirs.

  The Mongols of the Golden Horde under Batu Khan now controlled the main water routes to the Black and Caspian seas, which enabled them to control the regions’ rich fisheries and trade routes. When Batu Khan established his capital, he chose a site just north of Astrakhan, on an important crossroad of the Great Silk Road. The strategic position enabled the Mongols to profit from the caravan trade between China, Europe, and the Middle East. The Mongol traders convinced the European merchants to carry with them the occasional barrel of caviar from the sturgeon fishery from the Sea of Azov. The Arabs spread caviar to other countries when they settled in Sicily, and from there, it was taken to Provence in Mediterranean France.

  Today, most caviar is preserved in a salt solution, and sells at $6 to $16 an ounce. Fresh caviar made up of high-grade eggs is much scarcer and sells for $300 an ounce! Why is caviar so expensive? It is so because there are only three countries in the world that produce it: Russia, Iran and Rumania. Imitation caviar is produced in few other countries from the eggs of cod, salmon and other fish, but connoisseurs say it is far inferior to the real thing!

  Another reason for the high price of caviar is the difficulties in obtaining it, for the sturgeon are in no hurry to reproduce. They take as long as the humans to reach the age of sexual maturity. Each fish carries a millions of eggs in its belly, and the odds are that only a single hatchling among them survives into adulthood. This lone offspring will then risk its life to reproduce, by traveling upriver along the same course taken by its parents, swimming leisurely through narrow channels where fishermen looking for it can easily snare it from water. The highest concentration of sturgeon in the world is found in the northern portions of the Caspian where the River Volga spills into the sea.

  Sturgeons are the most valuable fish of the world. Twenty-five species and sub-species of sturgeons have been identified so far, of which only three species produce caviar, all living in the Caspian Sea. The specifications of these valuable Fishes are as follows:


  Beluga usually weighs between 75-100 Kilograms and is 2 meters long. It produces about 20 Kilograms of Beluga Caviar and has a life expectancy of about 100  years. Beluga Caviar has a dark to light gray color, and is large with a thin shell.


  Asetra on the average, weighs 20 Kilograms, is 1.5 meters long, produces 4-7 Kilograms of Asetra Caviar, and can live up to 50 years. The Asetra Caviar comes in dark to light gray and golden colors and has a delicious taste.


  Sevruga has an average weight of 10 Kilograms, and is 1-1.40 meters long, produces about 3 Kilograms of Sevruga Caviar, and can live up to 30 years. Sevruga Caviar is dark gray, has small grains and a delicious taste.

  The sturgeon’s voracious appetite makes it a big fish that never stops growing in size. The largest beluga - which may live for more than a hundred years – that has been caught weighed more than 4750 pounds and stretched twenty-eight feet! A female beluga caught in 1766 in the Ural River weighed 2520 pounds and yielded an impressive nine hundred pounds of roe, which would have made her worth half a million dollars at today’s prices. A Pacific white sturgeon caught in the Fraser River near Vancouver weighed about 1600 pounds and measured 18 feet from head to tail.

  Sturgeon eggs vary in color and are usually a refection of its diet. For catching a sturgeon, precise timing is essential. The sturgeons normally deposit their eggs on the bottom of the freshwater riverbeds. Fishermen have to catch the fish just before they are getting ready to lay their eggs, and they believe that the best caviar comes from fish caught four days before spawning. If they catch a sturgeon, too early in its migration they keep it alive until the eggs are ripe and deliver the delicious pop when eaten for the eggs of the sturgeon becomes lighter, tauter and flavorful as it gets close to spawning.

  They place the fish in floating cages in the water and with no source of food available; the hungry fish are forced to feed the food stored in their roe. Once the food is used up, the roe is fit to eat. The fish are killed and their roe is taken out. The eggs are then strained, washed, place in a brine or salt solution and packed in tins or jars for shipping it to different parts of the world. Good caviar should smell like fresh salt water and it should have an unbroken glistening thin outer membrane with distinct individual roe. The inner yolk or oil should have a viscosity like honey and the eggs should rotate slowly in a container at room temperature. The most expensive eggs, which are highly prized, are those, which have a golden yellow color.

  The word caviar first entered the English language, when it appeared among the imports of Europe from the Middle East in the early part of the fifteenth century and may have been known even before that time. For Shakespeare, it served as a metaphor for elitist taste: “The play, I remember, pleased not the million; ‘twas caviar to the general.” (Hamlet, II, 2, 465). Bartolomeo Scappi, the personal cook to Pope Pius V mentions it in his manual of gastronomy, first published in Venice in 1570. He writes, “Caviar is made from sturgeon’s eggs and is brought from Alexandria and from places in the Black Sea by merchants who pack it in kegs. It is served on hot toasted slices of bread with an eggplant sauce and capsicum.”

  The best method of serving is largely a matter of personal taste however, etiquette usually dictates that caviar of the highest grades should not be garnished at all and should be enjoyed for its own special and unique flavor. Expert tasters tend to keep it simple by enjoying it in its natural state. The idea of being able to enjoy caviar for its own natural flavor has led to traditional serving with neutral tasting bases (with no salt) such as: plain white or toasted bread, hard boiled eggs, potato pancakes, rice, and crackers. Accompaniments, which do not detract from the unique tastes of caviar, are avocado, sour cream and unsalted butter. Some like to add caviar to recipes. As a rule, caviar should not be overcooked for it will toughen and lose its original flavor. Caviar tastes best when it is added to dishes at the last minute to impart its flavor to soups and sauces or after cooking is complete.

  Caviar is served on any occasion where one wishes to make it special, exciting, romantic, and memorable and it is served during dinners with the proper ambiance. Caviar is to be enjoyed as one of those wonderful and simple pleasures in life like great art or serious music, and its courses are enjoyed with a little ceremony and attention to detail.

  The story of caviar has long been one of conflict and crisis. Over the years, the royalty of countries like Russia, China, Hungary, Denmark, France and England decreed sturgeon to be a “royal fish” and all sturgeon caught belonged to the imperial treasury and must be given to the monarch or the gentry. Over the years, greedy businessmen have exploited the wealth of untapped sturgeon in American waters. The Russian communists established a sophisticated cartel to market caviar to the rich Western clientele. The Russian mafias have also tried to control its trade by selling contraband caviar in the international market at absurdly low prices.

  Americans eat more than 20000 pounds of caviar every year. However, if the uninitiated who gets the chance to taste the caviar for the first time may wonder what the fuss is about. After all, caviar is nothing but salty eggs got from a fish!


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