We’ve all heard of the expensive and elusive delicacy that is caviar. Beluga caviar specifically is one of the most expensive and delicious foods available, and a staple of “high-class” society. We all know the mythic status of beluga caviar and the desire to simply taste any of the other types of caviar. But what makes caviar, caviar? Why is there such a high regard for this delicacy?
Well for starters, it could be useful to understand what exactly caviar is and where it comes from. Caviar is a type of roe which are fish eggs, but it comes from a specific type of fish located in a specific region in the world. While caviar is said to be tastier than most other types of roe, the real reason for the exuberant prices and high demand comes from the lack of supply.
Throughout this article, you’ll gain an understanding of what caviar is, how it’s harvested and produced, what fish makes it, and where it comes from. We’ll also go into a brief history of this expensive dish to get a better understanding of why people hold it as a mythic standard of fine dining. Beluga caviar is one of the most expensive dishes in the world, and years of fishing and the depletion of the sources of caviar have led to even higher prices and demand.
A Quick History of Caviar
The name ‘caviar’ comes from the Persian word khaviar which translates to “egg carrier,” which is the perfect description of what caviar is. The popularity of caviar stems from the ancient Greeks who utilized caviar as a status symbol and commonly enjoyed it as lavish events and high-society parties. It is from there that we get this idea that caviar is reserved for the upper echelons of people. These Byzantine Greeks would trade the caviar with the Russians where the popularity then spread.
For centuries, caviar has been regarded as an elusive dish and the price has only continued to skyrocket. Currently, you can find small, 5-ounce containers of beluga caviar for upwards of $150, and that’s the lowest end. Recently, overfishing in the caviar-producing populations has led to conservation efforts to try to preserve these fish. In 2005, the first legislation was passed to prevent the import of wild caviar.
From then on, many nations began to band together in an attempt to restore the population of fish so that caviar could continue being such a delicacy. From ancient times to today, caviar has been a staple of high-class society with the price slowly rising over the years. It’s due to this ancient popularity that the demand for this roe continues to be high today. Few products retain their popularity over so many centuries, but caviar certainly has managed to.
What Makes it Caviar?
Caviar is only produced by a certain type of fish in a certain region of the world. If it’s not roe from that species, found in the right waters, then it’s not caviar according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. So, what makes it caviar?
Firstly, it has to be produced by sturgeon. The different types of sturgeon are what lead to the more detailed classification of the type of caviar. For example, beluga caviar is produced by the beluga sturgeon. Osetra caviar comes from the osetra sturgeon and sevruga comes from the sevruga sturgeon. Therefore classifying the type of caviar you’re producing isn’t too difficult. Some countries include other species of fish roe under the classification of caviar, but not the FDA.
The second requirement for the roe to be classified as caviar is that it must come from the Caspian and Black seas. This is where the ancient Greeks first fished for the sturgeon, and so it continues to be a requirement that the fish eggs known as caviar come from these two bodies of water. If they don’t come from these seas, then they aren’t traditional caviar. As far as prices go, the most expensive caviar available is beluga caviar fished from the Caspian Sea.
How is Caviar Processed?
Due to over fishing in the Caspian and Black seas, there has been a big transition towards commercial farming of caviar. Sturgeon farmers utilize a method of growing the fish called aquaculture. This process can take anywhere from 7-10 years before you have a fish that’s able to produce the high-quality product you’re looking for. Even once you’ve hit the 7-year mark, only about 10-20% of your sturgeon will be ready to produce eggs.
Once the fish is ready to produce, there are a couple of methods used to retrieve the eggs. You can either massage the eggs out which avoids removal of any other parts of the fish, but can also lead to egg damage if done improperly. The other option is to stun the fish and remove the ovaries, retrieving the eggs directly from them. The outer walls of the fish are then stitched up and the fish can continue producing roe in a couple years.
The eggs are then cleaned and any impurities are manually removed by hand. A very fine salt is then sprinkled across the eggs to help preserve them for longer. The amount of salt used is another determining factor in the quality of the caviar. The more salt you use, the longer the shelf-life. However, more salt lessens the fresh taste of the caviar and classifies it as “semi-preserved.” Any caviar that’s less than 3% salt is regarded as the highest quality.
A Step From Wild to Breading
As mentioned, the overfishing of caviar has led to a more processed and man-made method of growing and harvesting caviar. The same quality and taste is present in this commercial caviar, but the fish aren’t found in the wild. This process helps save the wild sturgeon and is overall beneficial to the fish and the environment as a whole.
Protecting the wild sturgeon helps stabilize the caviar industry. While you might not be getting your “traditional” caviar from the Caspian sea, the quality is just as good and the species is protected from overfishing.