Caviar 101

 

  1. Caviar is the eggs (is/are – I’m pretty sure it’s is) of a fish called sturgeon. Strictly speaking, the eggs must be cured (usually, this just means combined with salt) before they qualify as caviar.
  2. Sturgeon is a pretty special fish. It’s not in the same biological family as most other fish: for instance, it has no (ordinary) scales. Sturgeon first appeared 240 million years ago (the same time as early dinosaurs) and have evolved only very slowly, so they still have many characteristics dating back that far. They are living fossils.
  3. One reason sturgeon evolved slowly is that most of them are very long-lived: in the wild, to well over 100. They can also grow huge. The biggest on record, caught 200 years ago in Russia, was seven metres long and weighed 1.5 tonnes.
  4. Like salmon, sturgeon spend most of their lives at sea but return to rivers to breed.
  5. Up to medieval times and later, different species of sturgeon inhabited many parts of the northern hemisphere including eastern Asia, North America and Europe including the UK. However, being very large and slow moving, they were easy prey, not to mention a very attractive catch. You can tell how early stocks began to dwindle from the fact that in 1320 or thereabouts, King Edward II decreed that any sturgeon caught in his realm must be offered to the king. This law still stands.
  6. By the mid twentieth century sturgeon had been more or less fished to extinction outside the Caspian Sea and Black Sea where they had always been abundant and there was a capability to prevent overfishing.
  7. International trade in caviar has been regulated by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) since the mid 1990s. Too late!
  8. Soviet Russia was always a major source of caviar but in the post Soviet era supplies dried up as poachers and criminals took the trade over. Iran was historically the other big source of wild caviar.
  9. As sturgeon was being exterminated in the wild, it was simultaneously becoming a very attractive proposition for fish farming. There are now hundreds of sturgeon farms across Europe, North America and Asia. And also across areas where the sturgeon was never endemic including South America, southern Asia (for instance, Viet Nam) and the Middle East. I would suggest that  99% of caviar sold worldwide is from farmed sturgeon.
  10. There are 27 species of sturgeon but historically the big three from the Caspian and Black Seas were the major sources of caviar. These were sterlet sturgeon, whose caviar was known as sevruga; the ossetra sturgeon (ossetra or osceitra caviar) and the beluga sturgeon (with the memorable Latin name, Huso huso).
  11. There were more similarities than differences between these three kinds of caviar. Sevruga was the least expensive (as in only very expensive) and beluga the most. Ossetra caviar usually had a brownish hue, sevruga was grey to black; beluga was often more grey than black, and its eggs were larger (whilst still being very small - about 3mm).
  12. All three types are available from caviar farms but the biggest category is now baerii caviar from a species called Siberian sturgeon, because this is the easiest and most economic species to farm.
  13. Caviar comes out of the fish is a giant lump with – incredibly - every egg having its own microscopic thread to its mother’s placenta. The eggs are separated by careful sieving.
  14. A common caviar term is malossol. This is the Russian for “little salt”. Way back when, you had fresh caviar – the cheap local stuff – and “malossol” caviar which had been lightly salted – about three per cent - to preserve it ready for the journey to Moscow, Paris and London. The salt adds a taste dimension which has become part of the caviar magic.
  15. A trace amount of a substance called borax is also added to caviar marketed in Europe. In caviar it acts a preservative, reducing the amount of salt required. Borax occurs naturally in many plant foods including fruit and vegetables. The USA however forbids the addition of borax to any food (so in the USA, caviar is generally saltier).
  16. An equally common caviar term is royal. It has no technical meaning, its only role being to impress.
  17. Sturgeon are still occasionally caught in British rivers. A 46lb/22kg (pretty big by your standards!) was caught as recently as August 2021. These fish probably escaped from farms.
  18. The record British sturgeon was caught in 1932 on the   Rover Towy in Wales. Weighing 175 kgs, it was sold to a Swansea fishmonger for £2.50. Read all about it (with a great picture).
  19. Here’s a great little tale from 1980  about the Royal Prerogative relating to sturgeon caught in the UK.
  20. Eating caviar is not just about the taste. But if it was, no-one would be disappointed.
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