Caviar: The Food of the Gods
"For centuries, the appeal of the sturgeon has been its flesh, which is generally smoked, and its roe, which is prized the world over as caviar."
Several months ago it was my good fortune to visit the bustling Iranian port of Bandar-e Turkoman on the shores of the Caspian Sea, to the east of the Caucasus Mountains and to the west of the vast steppe of Central Asia which is the largest inland body of water on Earth.
I was not here by chance, for I had read a disturbing report in the National Geographic about the recent US boycott of the most sought-after harvest from the Caspian Sea, which threatens to destroy the livelihood of so many local fishermen and a way of life passed down to them for generations.
In a country as inured to economic sanctions as Iran, one more embargo might be expected to pass unnoticed, but for one Bandar fisherman Nazer Al-Sha’rawi and his family, the US boycott of his catch is likely to mean the end of a long-established family business. “I’ve been doing this job for more than 30 years and I don’t have any other skill,” said Mr Al-Sha’rawi, 56, as he checked the deep-water nets painstakingly laid to catch a potentially lucrative species of sturgeon that once swam the Caspian in abundance.
His sentiments are shared by state-employed caviar fishermen all along Iran’s Caspian coastline, who fear the days of their expeditions in tiny motorised fishing boats are numbered. The number of caviar fishermen in the Iranian Caspian provinces has fallen by 50% in the past 20 years under government job-cutting schemes designed to tackle dwindling fish stocks and what is now recognised as a global environmental crisis.
Caviar, so often referred to as the ‘Food of the Gods’, is the salted roe of the sturgeon and for centuries this mouth-watering delicacy has been highly prized and treasured by the great and the good. Ancient Phoenicians used it to sustain them in times of war and famine; Pliny and Ovid sung its praises in their verse; and the Russian Tsars and Emperors of Manchuria reserved it greedily and wisely for their own consumption. To this day, caviar remains undoubtedly the most sought-after, exquisite delicacy in the world and it is certainly the most exclusive.
Traditionally, the term ‘caviar’ refers only to roe from wild sturgeon found in the Caspian and Black Sea. The four main caviar-producing species from these seas are the Beluga (Hus huso), Sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus) which is a relatively small species, Oscietra (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii), and the delicately-flavoured Sevruga (Acipenser stellatus), which may be distinguished from its more expensive cousins by the size of the eggs, which are generally smaller.
A pearly white variety, called Almas (Persian for diamond), is something for the elitists – very hard to acquire and therefore a culinary curiosity. This is widely regarded as the most expensive caviar in the world. This variety is generally thought to be either the eggs of an albino Beluga sturgeon or those of an Oscietra sturgeon over 60 years of age (whose eggs have been known to change to a light golden colour). It is rare and expensive to say the very least, which is probably what makes it so irresistible. A kilo of the Almas caviar is priced at £19,500, but there is no need to get disheartened though, for if you are tight on budget, you can buy a smaller version of the Almas which is more reasonably priced at around £620.
Should you wish to simply view the Almas caviar on display in its beautiful gold packaging, then you’ll be well rewarded for visiting Caviar House & Prunier’s flagship London store in Piccadilly, whose acclaimed Seafood Bar is also an elegant place to dine with caviar, Balik salmon and oysters in an unrivalled location.
Sturgeon have been around for well over 250 million years and are found only in the Northern Hemisphere. Some species live most of their lives in brackish or salt water, but like salmon, return to fresh water for spawning. Unlike salmon, sturgeon can spawn multiple times throughout their lives, and can live to be over 100 years old.
Although it is not clear when people first ate caviar, its first written record was from Batu Khan’s time (the grandson of Genghis Khan) in the 1240s. The sturgeon caviar industry as we know it today started in Eurasia and around the Mediterranean in the 16th century, most notably in the shallow waters of the Po River in Italy.
The roe of the sturgeon was carefully extracted from the female fish and the eggs were passed through a horse hair sieve, which removed the outer membrane and separated the eggs. The roe was then heavily salted and packed in wooden casks for shipment. Caviar did not become worldly until the latter part of the 1800s when the French started importing the delicacy from Russia.
Malossol, which is a Russian word that literally translates to “little salt”, and which we generally eat today, was not available until chilled transportation was developed. The term was originally used to distinguish high grade caviar from ordinary caviar. When caviar was being produced many centuries ago, no viable preservatives existed to properly conserve and extend its shelf-life. However, adding too much salt would overwhelm the taste and quality of the caviar, compromising the cell-walls of the roe and causing the caviar to lose its characteristic “pop”. Thus, the term “Malossol” was born to inform both purveyors and consumers that this specific type of caviar had not been overly salted and was of the highest quality and taste.
There are about 25 species of sturgeon and they are considered to be among the most primitive of all the true bony fish. They lack scales but have a characteristic row of bony plates, or ‘scutes’, embedded in their skin. Internally, much of their skeleton is cartilage rather than real bone. They are greenish-brown or black on their upperparts, paler beneath and feed on small invertebrates, fish and other bottom-living creatures. They not only grow to a great size, but also live to a great age. The Common Sturgeon (Acipenser sturio) probably lives to about 40 years old but other species live for much longer. It can attain 3.5 metres in length and weigh in excess of 300 kilograms.
Although they appear never to have bred in Britain, the existence of the odd account of small individuals being seen occasionally suggests that breeding may have taken place. Sturgeon were seen or caught principally in the Severn, Thames, Avon, Ouse, Trent and several Scottish rivers, including the Tay, but today they are found only occasionally offshore. Trent Bridge in Nottingham was probably the furthest inland that any sturgeon ever reached, although there was recently a reported sighting of a fish in the Thames very similar in size and appearance to the sturgeon by a staff member walking by the river at The Swan at Streatley near Goring.
That sturgeons were once reasonably common is evidenced by their discovery in the remains of what were presumably ancient feasts (sturgeon bones have been found in medieval excavations at Westminster Abbey). By tradition, sturgeons were considered ‘royal fish’ and had to be offered to the sovereign.
I have traced this custom to a statute of King Edward II, which dates from 1324 and which, in translation, states:
“Also the King shall have … whales and sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere within the realm except in certain places privileged by the King”.
This royal prerogative is thought to have originated with the King of Denmark and the Dukes of Normandy, who exercised similar rights. Among a few exceptions was a privilege granted to the Lord Mayor of London to claim sturgeons caught in the Thames above Tower Bridge. In 1953, it was being argued in Parliament that “elsewhere within the realm” could reasonably mean within the then 3-mile (4.8 kilometre) limit of our territorial waters. Now that the territorial limit is an EU-designated region of 200 miles (320 kilometres), a test case of the ownership of sturgeons might be a legal minefield. Nonetheless, under Edward II’s statute, sturgeons, whales, porpoises and dolphins were considered ‘Fishes Royal’ and could be claimed on behalf of the Crown and should be reported to the local Receiver of Wreck.
Today, the sovereign no longer claims sturgeons when they are caught offshore but, if a sturgeon is offered to the Queen, Her Majesty accepts it as a gift (in other words, no payment is made). There have been a number of offers during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, beginning before her Coronation with one brought into Grimsby on 18 January 1953 by the skipper of the small steam trawler ‘Merryn’; the Queen was graciously pleased to accept it. In 1971 Lord Hailsham, the then Lord Chancellor commented that the continued existence of the prerogative right to royal fish was of no benefit to Her Majesty and occasionally caused inconvenience to other people.
The most recent occasion when a sturgeon was offered to the Queen was in February 1998. It had been caught near Looe Harbour in Cornwall by local fisherman, Dick Butters. It weighed between 13.6 and 15.9 kilograms and measured 1.37 metres in length. Because it had not been killed, Her Majesty accepted the sturgeon but agreed that it should remain at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, which opened the same year.
For centuries, the appeal of the sturgeon has been its flesh, which is generally smoked, and its roe, which is prized the world over as caviar. All sturgeons are now seriously endangered but some success has been achieved in farming them in order to ensure the continuity of the valuable caviar trade. A caviar substitute often seen in Britain is ‘lumpfish caviar’, which has nothing to do with sturgeons but it the dyed roe of the Atlantic Lumpsucker, or sea hen (Cyclopterus lumpus), while ‘red caviar’, which is also commonly seen, is derived from the Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar).
Today, there is only one producer of sturgeon caviar in Britain, Exmoor Caviar, which was established in 2010 by Kenneth Benning, who is also owner of the long-established online retail company the London Fine Foods Group and London’s leading caviar wholesaler, Shah Caviar. Prior to starting caviar production in the United Kingdom, the company received a letter from Buckingham Palace confirming that the Queen would not extend the royal prerogative and that the sturgeons held by
them would therefore remain the property of the company.
In the early 20th century, Canada and the United States were the major suppliers to Europe; they harvested roe from the Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) in the North American Midwest, and from the Shortnose Sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) and the Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus) spawning in the rivers of the Eastern coast of the United States.
With the depletion of Caspian and Black Sea caviar, production of farmed or “sustainable” caviar has greatly increased. As well as Canada and the United States, Uruguay has become a major producer and exporter.
In 2009, Iran was the world’s largest producer and exporter of caviar, with annual exports of more than 300 tons, followed by Russia and Kazakhstan, with relative newcomers such as the Kibbutz Dan in northern Israel, producing 4 tons of caviar a year.
Italy is the world’s largest producer and exporter of farmed caviar, delivering no less than 45 tons of the delicacy in 2015 alone. Twenty percent of the caviar consumed worldwide is produced in Italy, thanks largely to the ban on sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea. This has also led to the recent development of aquaculture as an economically viable means of commercial caviar production, with pioneering companies such as Caviar Court, in Dammam, Saudi Arabia which was established in 2001 leading the way.
With more than 50 years’ experience in fish farming, Caviar de Riofrío in Spain are one of the largest sturgeon farmers in the world, the most important fish stock of which is the critically endangered Adriatic Sturgeon (Acipenser naccarii), which is native to the Adriatic Sea and in particular, to the large rivers in the northern part of Italy, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Greece. The company started life in the Navarre fishing industry in northern Spain in 1956 and its current facility in Andalusia was extended in 1963. They were the first to receive organic certification for the production of sturgeon caviar.
With the United States representing 80% of the caviar export market, the embargo has potentially devastating consequences for Caspian fishermen. Existing US trade sanctions, imposed since the 1979 Islamic revolution, have been circumvented in recent years by routing large stocks of caviar through third world countries to the US, where Beluga sells at more than £2,000 a pound. This is further strengthening mafia-backed poaching and smuggling rings. With sturgeon stocks dwindling the black market is flourishing.
Today caviar is widely available in a bewildering range of quality, colour and flavour. It is even used as a beauty treatment and considered an aphrodisiac – not for nothing is this sought-after delicacy often called “Aphrodite’s eggs”. Above all, caviar is about pure pleasure. It is about spoiling yourself, indulging and relaxing with one of the most sensual, irresistible, exquisite tastes in life. Caviar is quite simply the ‘Food of the Gods’.
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