caviar was a free bar snack -- 12/7/23

Today's encore selection -- from Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. Until 100 years ago, sturgeon were plentiful in the rivers and lakes throughout Europe and America, and caviar was an ordinary food for those who lived near these sturgeon-filled waterways -- in some areas it was so common it was served as a free bar snack:

"The word caviar is of Turkish derivation and refers to the eggs of the sturgeon -- a prehistoric animal that has not evolved in 180 million years. It is a huge migratory fish that, like the salmon, is anadromous, that is, it lives in saltwater but swims upstream to spawn in the freshwater place of its birth. ... Originally, the eggs were food for fishermen, cheap food because they were not salable, whereas the fish itself brought high prices. But gradually the eggs gained appreciation.  ...

beluga sturgeon that swim in the Caspian Sea

"France produced caviar since at least the time of Louis XIV, largely from the sturgeon catch on the Gironde River. But sturgeon caught on the Seine, even in Paris, was a rare enough event for the fish to be presented to kings. [Jean-Baptiste] Colbert regulated the fishery to preserve the fish, and these laws are still in force. But the fish are gone. Louis XV got a Paris sturgeon in 1758 and Louis XVI got one in 1782. Marie-Antoine Carême, the famous early-nineteenth century French cook, insisted he saw a 220-pound sturgeon almost three yards long by the Pont de Neuilly on the western edge of Paris. That was one of the last sturgeon sightings in Paris.

"Sturgeons, which can weigh up to two tons, have little resistance to industrial pollution. Even the Gironde, the last holdout of French sturgeon, became too polluted, as did the Hudson and other great sturgeon rivers of North America.

"When Europeans settled in North America, they recorded seeing Native Americans catching huge sturgeon. Even in the nineteenth century, American rivers had sturgeon. Caviar was served as a free bar snack, in the hope that as with peanuts, the saltiness would encourage drinking. During World War I, British soldiers were fed cans of pressed caviar, which they called 'fish jam' and mostly loathed. A soldier would pay for cans of sardines rather than eat the free fish jam that was issued. ...

"Until the twentieth century, that seems to have been the case. In nineteenth-century Russia, sauerkraut was valued more than caviar, and in [some] recipes the caviar is simply a pleasant salted flavoring for the cabbage ...

"Apparently, by the early twentieth century, Americans valued Russian caviar from the Caspian Sea. In 1905, Russia was in open revolt against the czar, and in April 1906, an American publication, Wide World Magazine, warned, 'The unrest in Russia, it is feared, will greatly affect the caviar industry.' The writer was concerned that the cossacks would get involved in the political unrest and abandon fishing sturgeon.

"But the magazine did see reasons for revolt. It reported that the czar forced the cossacks to give him a yearly tribute of eleven tons of their best caviar and reported that this tribute alone required the killing of 5,000 sturgeon at the start of each season.

"The article described the cossacks in the Russian winter, standing on the ice and fishing through holes. It reported that the eggs were mixed with 'the finest salt,' at a ratio of 4 to 5 percent salt. The Caspian, fed by the Ural and Volga Rivers, is the world's largest saltwater lake. Not only does it have sturgeons, it has sea salt where brackish water evaporates at the mouths and estuaries of the numerous rivers that empty into it.

"Before the 1917 revolution, the cossacks were the dominant caviar producers of the Caspian. They fished sturgeon only twice a year, for two weeks each time, and the sturgeon seemed inexhaustible. The entire cossack population participated in these two brief fishing seasons. First, in the autumn, whole extended families pulled nets down the Volga River. The second two-week season was in the middle of winter, and this fishery also was on the river. Armed with harpoons, hundreds of cossacks would stand on the ice of the frozen river awaiting a cannon blast that was their signal to pierce the ice and attempt to spear a sturgeon. The noise would drive the terrified fish downstream, and the cossacks would follow with their harpoons and cannons while merchants from Moscow, Leningrad, even Paris and other European capitals waited for the giant fish to be cut open while still alive.

"The price has been leaping upward since the beginning of the twentieth century. From 1900 to 1915, the price of caviar doubled. Merchants began importing Russian caviar, not to mention French caviar with Russian labels, to exclusive establishments in western Europe. This was how the Petrossian family, today one of the leading caviar distributors, got started. Born on the Iranian side of the Caspian, they grew up on the Russian side, immigrated to Paris, and discovered that Russian things were in vogue with the rich.

Workers separate caviar from its placenta in a sterile room at the Galilee Caviar's 

"During the twentieth century, as industrial pollution and oil spills killed off sturgeon around the world, commercial caviar fishing was largely reduced to the Caspian Sea. Historically the Caspian has always been controlled by Russia from the northern shore and Iran from the southern shore, giving these two nations a virtual monopoly on caviar. But the Caspian and the Russian rivers that feed it have also been besieged by pollution. Chemicals and fishermen have killed so many sturgeon that by the early 1970s even the Russians were suffering a shortage of caviar. In that decade, increased industrialization in Iran started threatening the Iranian fisheries on the southern side of the lake. At this point, the price of caviar became prohibitive to most people. ...

"Of the twenty-four known varieties of sturgeon, three are still fished for caviar in the Caspian. The prices of the caviar from the three varieties -- beluga, ossetra, and sevruga -- are not a reflection of quality but rather of the rarity of the fish. The giant beluga are hardest to find, and therefore their caviar is the most expensive. It takes twenty years for a female beluga to mature, and at that point she can weigh as much as 1,800 pounds and be up to twenty-six feet in length. Such a fish could yield twenty pounds of eggs. Beluga have the largest eggs, and these smoky gray bubbles are also the most delicate eggs, which is another reason they are the most expensive. More beluga eggs are broken and lost in processing than any other kind of caviar."



Mark Kurlansky


Salt: A World History


Penguin Books


Copyright Mark Kurlansky 2002


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