Caviar is the undisputable jewel of the luxury food scene, conjuring up images of expensive hors d’oeuvres served at the finest social functions. But how did these tiny black edible pearls become so prized?
The fine delicacy consists of fish eggs, also called roe, harvested from the sturgeon. There are 27 different species of sturgeon, giving us different types, textures, colours and flavours of caviar— although ironically, the flesh of the sturgeon itself is not particularly prized. The most expensive and desirable caviar comes from the Beluga, or Huso Huso sturgeon, known for having the largest and softest eggs. Fishing for wild Beluga sturgeon is restricted due to the fish’s status as an endangered species, so most Beluga caviar is from farmed fish.
Labour of love
Harvesting caviar is by no means a get-rich-quick scheme, despite its high price. The sturgeon fish can only be harvested for its roe once it has reached maturity, which is when an adult fish weighs 4,000 pounds. It can take Beluga sturgeon up to two decades to reach this weight.
Complicating matters for fisherman even further, the enormous fish lives naturally only in the rough waters of the Caspian and Black Seas. And once the sturgeon is caught, harvesting the roe is no simple feat. It requires ample time and special care, even when done by machine.
During the Soviet era, the harvest and production of wild caviar was a tightly controlled, highly lucrative industry. But this all changed with the dissolution of the USSR—suddenly, everybody wanted to be in the caviar business. This led to over-fishing of sturgeon, which was devastating to the ecosystem and industry. These days, to meet the need of the world’s rising demand for the fishy delicacy, caviar is now farm-raised in many parts of the world with the United States, China, Israel and Iran as the largest producers. The UK has a major caviar farm based outside Leeds with an unusual no kill policy.
If you’re new to the world of caviar, here are a few tips before you jump in head first. Alexandre Petrossian of the famed Paris caviar house recommends that you buy at least 30 grams of caviar for two people. Caviar novices are often tempted by the low price and cute size of the 10- gram tins, but to really taste the nuanced flavours, it’s better to start with more. Eat it quickly, as the oils and flavours change rapidly once the tin is opened.
Be careful where you’re buying your caviar from, particularly if online, and if you’re just starting out, begin your journey at the low end of the price scale. Caviar can be an acquired taste, and you might not want to acquire that taste at the high end, around $300 for an ounce.
This feature was originally published in the spring edition of Arts and Collections, which you can also read here.