Origins of Caviar
Caviar has enjoyed lasting fame as the luxury treat in the most
upscale social circles. So what's the story behind the mystery and
mystique of this luxurious indulgence?
Caviar is basically the roe (eggs, also sometimes referred to as
"berries" or "pearls") of the female sturgeon, a large - it can grow to
over 3000 lbs, but averages 60lbs- migratory fish that has roamed the
cold waters of the northern hemisphere for over 250 million years.
Sturgeon is found mainly in the Caspian Sea, which laps the shore of the
two major caviar-producing countries in the world, Russia and Iran, but
is also found in the Black Sea, some parts of the Pacific Northwest and
South Atlantic regions of North America, and is common in the big lakes
and rivers in Europe. Although it is a saltwater fish, it spawns (lays
eggs) in freshwater.
The British kings of the middle ages reserved all the sturgeon for
their own consumption and knighted it the "Royal Fish", set aside solely
for royalty. However, it was the Persians who first prepared and
savored sturgeon roe- the word "caviar" actually comes from the Persian
word "khav-yar" which means "cake of strength" or "cake of power",
because the people of Persia attributed many medicinal powers to caviar.
The Persians collected the fish eggs on the Kura River, but the
tradition of salting fish roe for consumption actually originated in
China, where carp eggs were prepared in this manner.
The first known record of caviar dates back to the Greek scholar
Aristotle. In the 4th Century B.C. Aristotle described this delicacy as
the eggs of the sturgeon, heralded into banquets amongst trumpets and
flowers. But it was Russia and the Russian Tsars that catapulted caviar
into the world of utter luxury. The golden roe of the Sterlet sturgeon -
now over fished to the point of near extinction- produced what would
become the "imperial" caviar, the most delicate and coveted type of
caviar available.As time progressed, gourmet caviar spread to all
countries across Europe, and was prized by nearly every culture. One jar
of caviar equaled one hundred sheep in the second century B.C., making
it exclusive to higher-class citizens.
Caviar in America
Believe it or not, caviar once used to joyfully flow in American
saloons and dining establishments, sold at a mere nickel. Like the
ever-present pretzel, caviar's saltiness produced thirst, which caused
patrons to spend more money in beer. The American caviar industry took
root with Henry Schacht, a German immigrant to America who first
developed a caviar business in 1873 based on the catch of sturgeon in
the Delaware River at Penns Grove, New Jersey, where sturgeon was
plentiful. Schacht created the first company to distribute caviar
throughout the world, exporting American sturgeon caviar to Europe at a
-gulp- dollar a pound. By the 19th century, the United States produced
90% of the world's caviar, which was then re-imported to the United States as "Russian Caviar". Go
figure, right? The state of Pennsylvania in 1900 estimated that about 90
percent of Russian caviar that was sold in Europe actually originated
in the US.
Today, several factors have caused the US caviar industry to take a huge
leap forward. The depletion of the Caspian Sea sturgeon populations,
political turmoil in the major caviar producing countries- Russia and
Iran- and a wider acceptance of other types of fish roe- such as
lumpfish, hackleback, trout and salmon, amongst others- as "caviar", has
created a bigger demand for American caviar, considered by connoisseurs
to be a solid, affordable alternative to Russian and Iranian caviars.
The U.S.'s dominance over caviar production has decreased significantly
due to the near extinction of the sturgeon in American waters.