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The History of Caviar
Caviar, sturgeon roe, is a delicacy in the modern world relatively few get the opportunity to sample. The idea that an ancestor decided to eat fish eggs might seem the most bizarre aspect of caviar’s history, but in fact, a number of interesting events are part of the caviar chronicle.

The word “caviar” comes into English from the Italian import in the 16th century, but it ultimately stems from the Persian word for egg. Although the Persian term technically refers to both the sturgeon and the roe, it has come down into English meaning only the egg. Caviar from fish other than the sturgeon usually has an adjective naming such origins, such as “salmon caviar.”

The Persians were early cultivators of caviar from the Caspian and later the Black Seas, believing in the roe’s vague medicinal qualities. Others in the area learned the value; Ancient Greek writers mention caviar, including Aristotle, who said the arrival of the caviar indicated the end of the banquet. Later, it was apparently a staple in Roman parties, well known for their excesses. Caviar seems to have been reserved for use by the upper echelon in both these societies even though it was relatively easily available.

This exclusive trend continued for centuries. In the Middle Ages, for instance, many European countries required those who obtained caviar to offer it to the sovereign. King Edward II of England (1284–1330) is one who gave such a decree. Even when and where the rules weren’t so strict, caviar was reserved for royalty. The Russian czars had the easiest access and so were historically the primary consumers. Czar Nicholas II (1868-1918) collected an annual tax from fishermen in the form of caviar.

It wasn’t until the early 19th century that there was a change in the exclusiveness of caviar patrons. Sturgeon were found in both the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. A short time later, the Columbus River in Oregon became a source. There was such an abundant supply that Canada and the U.S. were the major suppliers of caviar to Europe during this period. The roe was in high enough supply that it was often served in American saloons, sometimes for free. (The equivalent to modern use of peanuts, the salty taste would encourage more drinking.) By 1900, the United States was the largest producer in the world, generating over 600 tons annually.

So many of the fish were harvested for the caviar that by 1906, a ban was placed on commercial sturgeon fishing. The American taste for caviar had already been stoked, however. Cesar Ritz put it on his menu created in partnership with his world-class French chef, and caviar’s place in high class restaurants was secured as other high-class restaurants followed suit.

The 1906 ban wasn’t enough to counter the depopulation in sturgeon that had already taken place, however, and the numbers continued to dwindle. In the 1960s, the price skyrocketed due to low supply, encouraging even more enthusiasts to farm the fish to make a quick profit. It wasn’t long before more drastic steps had to be taken as even the Caspian, home to at least 90% of the world’s population of sturgeon, began to see a serious drop in numbers of fish. Limits or bans on fishing as well as export bans on the caviar have found recent support. Such activities drive the price higher, which then encourages more poaching in the ancient waters, but conservationists feel little more can be done.

Some changes have occurred in the way caviar is extracted, leading to a larger supply in the long run. The universal method always has been simply clubbing the fish and taking out the ovaries. Currently, it is more common to remove the caviar surgically, stitching up the fish and keeping it alive to produce more roe. These fish often live over 100 years and become sexually mature at 15, so such precautions can add up to a lot of caviar. Even less invasive is the process of “stripping,” taking out the caviar without surgery. This relatively new procedure has not fully caught on due to the lack of education, but it promises an even healthier population of sturgeon in the years to come.

The popularity of caviar continues regardless of the harvesting method. It retains its primary association with wealth and grandeur but is still commonly found on holiday and wedding tables in eastern Europe as well as fine eating establishments worldwide.

So the history ends with a fish that swam with and survived the dinosaurs becoming endangered because of its famous eggs and perhaps becoming extinct within the next decade. Years of over-fishing and pollution cannot be undone quickly, but as conservationists learn more, caviar has a brighter future.

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