Caviar is basically the roe (eggs, also sometimes referred to as “pearls”) of the female sturgeon, a large migratory fish that has roamed the cold waters of the northern hemisphere for over 250 million years. Size and weight can vary depending on the type of sturgeon. Some types can grow to over 3000 lbs (1360 kg), while others average around 132lbs (60 kg).
However, it is also found in the Black Sea, some parts of the Pacific Northwest and South Atlantic regions of North America, and it is common in the big lakes and rivers in Europe. Most sturgeons are anadromous fish, which spend most of their time in the salt water but migrate upstream to spawn (lay eggs) in freshwater.
The mystique and luxury of caviar date back to the 4th Century B.C. In records, the Greek philosopher Aristotle described this delicacy as the eggs of the sturgeon, heralded into banquets amongst trumpets and flowers.
However, the Persians were the first to prepare and savour sturgeon roe. The word “Caviar” actually comes from the Persian word “khav-yar” which means “cake of strength”, as many medicinal powers were attributed to Caviar. Sturgeon roe has not always been the delicacy that it is today. A long time ago caviar was eaten by the fishermen at the Caspian sea or in American saloons as an appetizer – mainly because of its salty taste – to encourage thirst. Of course, without refrigeration Caviar is quickly spoiled. It is exactly this perishability what made caviar so exclusive, and it was precisely this exclusivity that fascinated the Tzars – among whom Peter The Great and other members of the Romanov family – and the higher echelons of these days. It is an undeniable fact that Russia and the Russian Tzars catapulted Caviar into the world of utter luxury.
Over the years, the sturgeon eggs had become much more popular among the upper class of the European society. By the Middle Ages, the British Kings reserved all the sturgeon for their own consumption and knighted it the “Royal Fish”, set aside solely for royalty.
By the mid-1800’s, ever greater quantities of sturgeon were harvested for their eggs, as the aristocracy in Russia and Europe had developed a taste for the “food of the Gods”. Because the popularity of Caviar around the world increased tremendously over the years, over-fishing, illegal poaching and pollution resulted in the depletion of wild sturgeon from what was once a healthy population. In Europe, King Edward II proclaimed the sturgeon to be a royal fish, and made every sturgeon caught in England belong to the imperial treasury. As known in pop culture today, caviar began to be enjoyed in France as early as 1553.
In 1998, the sturgeon came under the protection of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Regulating international trade in sturgeon, was essential to preserve the resource for future generations. A couple of years later, CITES banned all import and export of wild caviar in an effort to end the unsustainable exploitation of sturgeon species. The introduction of CITES controls in 1998, and customers demanding sustainably produced sturgeon caviar has driven the transformation of the industry into a global sturgeon farming business.