Caviar: So much to learn, one place to go

In a recent article, we shared our experiences and elation being offered a genuine slice of luxury … some of the finest champagnes and one of its purest accompaniments, a tasting of caviar.

Caviar This Magnificent Life
Not many ways to improve Tassie salmon. Beluga helps

Well, we must have behaved ourselves because we were invited back

Many folks today think of caviar as the height of modern indulgence and ostentation, however, its history is fascinating and complex. These little pearls are not only rare and delicious but their story is twined in with politics, power, shifting allegiances and empire building.

Volumes could be written about caviar. In fact, there have been.

Caviar This Magnificent Life
The go-to girls for all you need to know about caviar. Kasia and Lisa

But we were fortunate to be in the hands of Lisa Downs and Kasia Sowinska, Caviar Ambassadors for Simon Johnson in Sydney.

So our history lesson was condensed into an easily digestible hour or so.

Caviar This Magnificent Life
A fine way to start any occasion. Champagne and caviar

But it was accompanied by a tasting that had us scrambling for the right words to convey the pure pleasure of the day.

What are we talking about here?

Caviar This Magnificent Life
Can you pick them? Clockwise from top left: Siberian, White Sturgeon, Beluga, Oscietra

Eggs. The eggs of fish often called the roe. Almost all fish have roe, but only a few species have the kind of eggs we prize nowadays as caviar. Those fish are the sturgeons and there are 27 different types of sturgeon. Only 9 are used for caviar and of those just three are the Holy Trinity you probably know.

Caviar This Magnificent Life
Image: supplied

More of them later.

The sturgeon was there in the Jurassic Period. Maybe earlier, 250 million years ago. There were sturgeons splashing and diving long before the stomping about of those dinosaurs, many possibly thinking about keeping themselves in shape for a movie role to follow. Shame that meteor had other ideas.

Lisa tells us: “Sturgeons are the seventh oldest living things on the planet which makes it even sadder that it’s only taken us the last 120 years to push 3 of the 27 sturgeon species onto the endangered list.”

But a global convention in 2008 brought in a total ban on fishing for wild sturgeon for commercial or recreation purposes. On the Caspian Sea, you go straight to jail if you’re caught with one on your line.

“These days 97% of the world’s caviar is the product of aquaculture, so it’s all farmed”, says Lisa.

Caviar This Magnificent Life
Mascot and memento of the good old days. Stella the Golden Sturgeon

But as a memento of the old days, she has Stella the Golden Sturgeon from the Caspian who was just 3 years old when she met her taxidermist.

Which came first? The fish or the egg.

Most people believe caviar was brought to us by the Russians, but it was actually the Persians back in the 4th century who first started curing the roe. Their word khavar means ‘egg of strength’.

They believed it was medicine with special properties.

It wasn’t until the 12th century the Russians got in on the act when they were introduced to fishing for sturgeon by the conquering Mongols. The realised there was an abundance of docile, easily caught fish in the Caspian. It was actually the fish meat that became a staple in the Russian diet. The roe was fed to the livestock. Back then caviar by the ton was shovelled out as pig food. Makes you cry, doesn’t it?

But with the sturgeon meat becoming more expensive in the 14th century the Russian Orthodox Church sanctioned the roe as a source of protein on feast days. With 200 feast days in the Russian calendar when they couldn’t eat met, caviar became regularly and affordably consumed by the common people. It was really only with the last Czar Nicolas the Second that the status of the roe came up from common nosh to a food fit for a king. He ‘taxed’ the fishermen by insisting their early harvest came to the Royal Court. The first year 12 tons were delivered and it was served on almost every regal occasion. Excessive? Some thought so. After the Revolution of 1917, the smarter Russians took off all over Europe and took their passion for this lovely stuff with them.

After the Ban, the Farms.

When the CITIES (Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species) ban happened in 2008 there were only 15 sturgeon farms that had mature females to supply the world markets. Today there are over 100 farms primarily in the Northern Hemisphere.

Caviar This Magnificent Life
Image: supplied

There is always a feeling that natural is preferable to captivity, but in the case of the sturgeon modern aquaculture has its benefits: supervising the growth of the fish, the nutrients they receive and the regulation of the optimum age for harvesting. It has also helped in the closer study of individual species. In Italy, for example, they were able to breed Adriatic Sturgeon over many years to successfully reintroduce them into the wild where they had become extinct.

The Holy Trinity

The first is Sevruga which comes from the smallest of all the sturgeon species, only 1 to 2 metres long. (You think that is a big fish? Have a look at the photo coming up). She ovulates quite young at about 6-8 years old. Pre the 2008 ban there was about 600 tons of caviar produced annually and of that 50% was Sevruga. Today there are about 250 tons produced and of that less than 1 ton is Sevruga. The reason being they have a very high mortality rate as fingerlings when farmed so most farmers prefer not to take the risk.

Sevruga is now one of the rarest caviars. It comes as a very tiny fine grey egg with a unique flavour. Simon Johnson only gets a small quantity once a year after the Europeans have their share.

Next up is Oscietra from the Russian Golden Sturgeon which grows up to 4 metres and produce at their best from 11 to 13 years old. This is the caviar most seen in the world market at the moment. It can be quite variable in size and colour but is most often presented with quite large grains of dark grey, dark brown and sometimes black. The flavour is quite rich and slightly creamy.

The third is Beluga. The most famous of all caviars, produced by the Huso Huso sturgeon which is the largest of them all. The folks who can regularly indulge their palates believe this is the best caviar because it is the most expensive. But that massive price tag is because the female does not produce until well into her mid-20s; generally living in very cold water and the colder the water the longer it takes for her to mature. It is expensive because there is a lot of cold water to go under the bridge before profits appear. But she can live up to 120 years and can ovulate into her 90s. Quite an amazing girl!

Caviar This Magnificent Life
What’s for dinner tonight? Russia 1922

The largest ever caught, weighing about 1.8 tons, was in 1793 in Astrakhan. About 15% of her body weight would have been caviar.

Our photo of that tiddler, probably around a ton, was taken in the early 1900s.

COMING SOON: NOT TO BE MISSED, OUR TASTING.

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Ian MacTavish

Mr MacTavish is a celebrated writer and one of Australia's more respected Wine reviewers, appearing regularly in national magazines, in print and on line. So far, he has never been heard to say 'no' to a wee dram.

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