Black Gold: Russian caviar

Black Gold: Russian caviar

Black caviar is one of the world’s most expensive luxury foods, earning itself the moniker “Black Gold” although the tiny eggs are worth several times more per pound than even this ancient measure of wealth.

Roe and caviar Photo by geishaboy500

Sturgeon: one of the oldest species of fish in the world

The Acipenseridae family of fish is made up of 26 different species, more than 20 of which are commonly referred to as ‘sturgeon,’ while several closely related species that are also part of the family have distinct common names, including Sterlet, Kaluga, and Beluga. Collectively, this family is also known as the ‘true sturgeons’ although not all members of Acipenseridae family are used for their roe and, historically, the most prized of all fish roe—black caviar (Чёрная икра; chernaya ikra)—comes only from wild Beluga sturgeon (осетрина; osetrina) from the Caspian or Black seas. Other highly valued caviars from the region are the roe of the Osetra and Sevruga sturgeon.

Members of the Acipenseridae family are one of the oldest bony fish still alive today although—due to overfishing for their extremely valuable roe, slow rates of growth and maturity, and pollution of their environment—most species are currently at risk of extinction. Sturgeon have a wide range of habitat; they’re native to subtropical, temperate, and sub-Arctic rivers, lakes, and coastlines of Eurasia and North America.

Very recently, University of Florida researchers believe they have even found several sturgeon swimming in rivers not far from the Everglades. Given that they evolved between 100-65 million years ago during the Upper Cretaceous period, their bodies are reminiscent of fish from the dawn of time: they’re long (ranging in size from seven to 12 feet, with some species growing up to 18 feet in length), with flattened rostra (faces), elongated upper tail lobes, and covered in bony plates called scutes rather than scales. Lacking even teeth, sturgeon bodies are primarily made of cartilage.

Russian sturgeon Photo by Keltose

Habitat and mating habits

Although sturgeon have an extreme range of tolerance for water temperatures and can be found in subtropical to subarctic waters, most species are anadromous: growing and feeding in brackish waters or along coastlines, which tend to be more rich in nutrients, but spawning in freshwater upstream. Few sturgeon venture into the open ocean beyond the coastal areas and some species of sturgeon are only able to survive in fresh water, including the Lake sturgeon, the Baikal sturgeon, and some populations of White and Siberian sturgeon.

History of caviar production

Persians are believed to have been the first to harvest sturgeon caviar from the Caspian Sea and even the English word “caviar” ultimately stems from the Persian word that was used for both “roe” and “sturgeon.” Ancient peoples believed that sturgeon caviar had medicinal qualities and it had become known at feasts early in human recorded history. In Aristotle’s day (he lived around 380 B.C.E.), it was said that the arrival of caviar signaled the end of a feast. Ancient Romans—renowned hedonists—likewise prized caviar and although it was relatively easy to obtain in ancient times, it appears from the historical record that caviar was reserved for the upper classes.

This elitist trend continued into the Middle Ages; King Edward II of England (1284-1330) even passed a decree requiring all of those who obtained caviar to offer it to the sovereign. By the time of Russian tzars, caviar had become a staple of the royal table and as late as the beginning of the 20th century, Tzar Nicholas II (1868-1918) collected an annual tax on fishermen in the form of caviar.

Early in the 20th century, Canada and the United States drastically increased the production of sturgeon caviar and began supplying much of Europe with caviar harvested from Lake sturgeon found in the Hudson, Delaware, and Columbia Rivers and from the Shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon that spawned in rivers on the eastern coast of the United States. With this spike in supply, sturgeon caviar lost its exclusive status and was even offered as a free snack in saloons—much like peanuts are today—as bar owners believed the salty taste of the fish eggs would encourage more drinking.

By 1900, the United States was the largest producer of sturgeon caviar in the world with a yield of 600 tons of caviar annually. Unfortunately, American unbridled enthusiasm all but wiped out the sturgeon native to the North American continent and the Shortnose sturgeon is officially endangered.

American caviar Photo by artizone

Global suppliers increase the supply

Today, Iran is the world’s largest producer and exporter of caviar whose annual exports are more than 300 metric tons. Russia is a close second although it—and other CIS countries—had banned the harvest and sale of black caviar from wild Beluga sturgeon in 2007, only resuming it in limited quantities in 2010.

To meet the growing demand in the face of dwindling supply, entrepreneurs worldwide have begun the aquaculture of sturgeon. Italy has recently become one of the largest producers of caviar in the world, and at least two farms exist in the Persian Gulf. The “Caviar Court” in Saudi Arabia began harvesting caviar in 2007 and, by 2011, had an average annual yield of five tons. A larger facility is being constructed in Abu Dhabi which is expected to produce 35 tons of caviar by 2015.

Caviar Extraction

Traditionally, mature, egg-bearing female sturgeon that are spawning were stunned before having their ovaries extracted, making it a rather barbaric method of caviar extraction that resulted in the death of the female. In more recent times, to ensure that the slow-growing, egg-producing females would survive the procedure to lay more eggs in the future, caviar was surgically extracted before females were released. However, as this method is incredibly painful and stressful for the fish, it has been made illegal in some countries. The most humane method of caviar extraction that is practiced today is called “stripping.” Following an ultrasound to determine the best time for the procedure, the roe farmer makes a small incision along the urogenital muscle of the female sturgeon fish thus releasing her eggs without overly stressing her. Unfortunately, not all fish farmers use this method due to lack of knowledge in the field.

Egg caviar by Jean George Photo by ulterior epicure

Highest valued types of caviar

Historically, only the eggs of wild Beluga sturgeon from the Caspian Sea were referred to as caviar although, depending on the country, eggs of other fish—including but not limited to other species of sturgeon—are also called caviar. Although there are over 25 species of fish collectively referred to as sturgeon, four produce the most prized caviar: Beluga, Sterlet, Ossetra, and Sevruga.

The most rare and costly ikra comes from wild Beluga sturgeon native to the Caspian Sea. Beluga caviar (белужья икра, belyghia ikra also known as “черная икрa” chernaya ikra or black caviar) is made up of soft, large eggs that range in color from pale silver-gray to black. However, although Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran all border the Caspian Sea, wild caviar production has only survived in the last two countries while Russia and other CIS states maintained a self-imposed ban on the harvesting of roe from wild sturgeon until 2010 and, afterward, in very limited quantities.

The most rare of the four famed types of sturgeon caviar is the small, golden roe of the Sterlet sturgeon; Sterlet caviar was once solely reserved for Russian tzars, Iranian shahs, and Austrian emperors.

Osetra caviar is considered lower in quality than both the Sterlet and Beluga varieties; its eggs are medium in size and range in color from gray to brown. Although still considered a luxury food, Sevruga caviar is ranked last among the four main types of sturgeon; it is both smaller than the other kinds of roe and gray in color.

In addition to classification by the type of fish, caviar is further subdivided into two categories: fresh (non-pasteurized), and pasteurized. Although considered by many to be healthier for human consumption, pasteurization reduces the value of the caviar both, in culinary and economic terms.

As demand far outstrips supply and costs have continued to rise, alternatives to sturgeon caviar have been developed using the roe of whitefish and salmon from the North Atlantic. However, gastronomes from around the world still prize belyghia ikra from wild Beluga sturgeon of the Caspian Sea above all others and, based on its flavor, size, and consistency, prices for this delicacy range as high as $16,000 per kilogram.

Petrossian caviar

Conservation efforts aimed at meeting demand

The Caspian Sea, home to approximately 90% of the world’s population of Beluga sturgeon, has been so overfished and polluted that the numbers of the ancient fish have dwindled to dangerous levels.

Attempting to protect the endangered species, the US banned the import of Beluga caviar from the entire Black Sea basin in 2005 and a year later, an international convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) supported an international embargo on the export of caviar. However, the ban was partially lifted in 2007, allowing for the sale of 96 tons of caviar and, in 2010, Russia and other countries of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) restarted exporting caviar based on quotas: three tons of Beluga, 17 tons of Sevruga, and 27 tons of Osetra per year. Kazakhstan was permitted to produce 13 out of 80 tons annually until February 28, 2011 under its state brand “Zhaik Balyk,” from the Kazakh word for the Ural River.

Russian love for caviar

It is rare to see a Russian table set for a celebration without at least a small plate of caviar among the dishes. While it’s served in the United States as a garnish, Russians don’t hesitate to eat caviar on a piece of freshly buttered bread as a sort of a sandwich. Many homes have a jar of caviar in the refrigerator, open and ready to be made into a quick snack. Even today, many Russians believe that chernaya ikra has many health benefits: I vividly remember a scene from my childhood in which my mother had to all but sit on my five-year old sister to force her to eat the wildly expensive Beluga caviar.

Undoubtedly an acquired taste for some, caviar has been popular among gourmands for millennia. As humans strive to become more responsible in their consumption and its sale and production is better and more humanely regulated, sturgeon caviar may yet survive to stimulate the palates of people living just as far in the future.