Ask anyone to name a luxury food and caviar will be top of the list. It’s difficult to think of a delicacy more widely famed for its price, rarity and the affluence of its consumers. But it wasn’t always so. The eating of salt-cured fish roe, or caviar, stretches back as far as the fourth century BC, when Greek philosopher Aristotle mentioned sturgeon roe being served during banquets. The Romans also believed caviar to have medicinal properties and imported it from what is now Ukraine. In the medieval era, Russian fishermen and peasants ate caviar as a cheap source of protein, but it wasn’t until Russian royalty developed a taste for it in the nineteenth century that Russian caviar became an internationally renowned luxury.
For the uninitiated, the variety of caviar on offer can be confusing. Strictly speaking, the world “caviar” refers only to the roe of wild sturgeon, which are predominantly found in the Caspian and Black seas, both of which have coastlines in Russia. But it can also be used to describe cheaper varieties on the market, such as salmon roe, known for its reddish hue, or whitefish caviar, which has a golden colour. When it comes to the ‘real thing’, Russian Beluga caviar – ranging from inky black to a prized pearlescent light grey in appearance – is the most expensive. A kilo of the best Beluga roe costs from around $7,000 to $10,000, although prices vary according to colour, size and taste.
Once exclusively the food of the tsars, the elitist nature of the most expensive caviar in Russia has not changed much in the past 150 years – given the historic and expensive caviar bars in Moscow and St Petersburg – but many Russians have turned to cheaper varieties to satisfy their love of it. Popular forms are:
- Ossetra and
- Sevruga caviar
which are other types of sturgeon. While Sevruga caviar is seen as the most common of the bunch, its smaller roe is packed with salty bold flavours that make it popular with connoisseurs. Although there are different ‘ranks’ of caviar, with sturgeon taking at least 20 years before producing eggs, all roe is considered valuable. Beluga caviar is now rare, with the sturgeon considered to be critically endangered, and Russia has implemented conservation initiatives to protect and replenish stocks.
A food for special occasions
Reflecting the delicacy’s place in Russian culture, caviar is reserved for special occasions. It is traditionally served at New Year, where black or red caviar – the far more common and affordable salmon roe – is served on buttered bread, toast or bliny, small Russian pancakes. Often served with more ‘bland’ foods such as boiled eggs and sour cream to balance the saltiness, caviar is well accompanied by a crisp, dry white wine or champagne – although the tsars preferred vodka, a tradition continued in Russia’s caviar bars and restaurants today.
For aficionados of the ‘black gold’, the way you eat it is as crucial as the kind you’re eating. Spoons made out of mother-of-pearl or bone are often used to avoid tainting the taste, and anything metallic is a no-no. Some prefer to eat the roe directly from the back of their hand, placing it in the mouth and rolling the eggs around between the tongue and palate to release their flavour.
While Russians are proud to produce some of the world’s finest caviar, they produce enough to occasionally have fun with it too. In 2012, a Moscow restaurant held a speed- eating competition in which 12 lucky contestants devoured $70,000 worth of roe, attempting to see who could finish half a kilo in the shortest amount of time. The prize for heroic winner Alexander Valov? More caviar, of course.