Caviar has been a luxurious specialty food for centuries, and in recent years it has become more accessible than ever before thanks to sustainable aquaculture practices.
But this amazing food item did not simply appear out of thin air onto the plates of history’s most influential parties. It has a long and rich past that is definitely worth exploring further.
Today we’re taking a journey through the history of caviar, beginning in ancient times and leading right up to the 21st century. Let’s begin!
Ancient Origins of Caviar
The history of caviar begins not with the cured eggs themselves, but with the sturgeon.
Humankind has been enjoying the fruits of the sturgeon, a prehistoric fish, for over 250 million years. Sturgeon was found in abundance throughout the continents of Asia, Europe, and the Americas, and was quickly identified as a delicious nutritional powerhouse for early peoples.
Although we only know of approximately 27 different species of sturgeon currently in existence, natural historians say that dozens of sturgeon types existed in the past, some even larger and more dominant than the largest species today.
Not only was sturgeon appreciated for its protein-packed meat (in some cases, thousands of pounds worth), but it also provided salty, succulent eggs that provided a ton of nutrition and tasted delicious in a world without much culinary advancement.
These eggs were quickly identified as a delicacy by early cultures such as the Greeks, who were using these eggs to celebrate important banquet events dating back to the 4th century BC. Even Aristotle recorded the widespread appreciation for sturgeon in his early works.
In ancient Persia, sturgeon roe was not harvested from the live fish but rather collected by hand along the river beds that flowed throughout early cities and towns.
It was the Persians who were responsible for caviar’s modern name, which is translated from khavyar, meaning “egg.” However, the word was not officially printed in English text until 1591.
The Persians are also seen as the first people responsible for curing sturgeon roe, officially making the first caviar creation before anyone else.
Industrialization and Indulgence
It’s impossible to think about modern caviar culture without thinking about Russia, a country which certainly played a big role in bringing caviar into the mainstream consciousness.
As early as the 8th century, Slavic fishermen were pulling massive sturgeon from the Volga River and using every part of the fish to feed up-and-coming communities.
From the mouth of the Caspian Sea to St. Petersburg, the sturgeon represented a pillar of the Russian economy, and caviar was a major bargaining chip in the evolving arena of world trade with other nations in the region.
It wasn’t just aggressive river fishing that made caviar such a key part of Russian society at this time. There is also clear evidence that industrialized farm fishing took place throughout the country, with many different types of sturgeons raised and harvested for their eggs.
While caviar was affordable to the masses in this time of abundance around the 12th century, things changed quickly as the sturgeon ran dry.
The Caspian Sea began to lose its natural resources of fish, and international competition in the area led to disputes and skirmishes over the territory. Ivan the Terrible was known for driving hard bargains with competing nations to gain supremacy in the sturgeon trade.
In short, sturgeon went from peasant food in Russia to a royal delicacy very quickly!
A parallel story took place in the United States of America, with some key differences.
We may find it funny now, but for decades following the Civil War, caviar was all over the place in the United States, to the point that it was given away for free.
German entrepreneur Henry Schact, cited by history books, was the man to take advantage of the amazing natural sturgeon resources in the blossoming USA, and who made a fortune exporting these fancy eggs to Europe, where markets were thinning at the time.
Yes, at the turn of the 20th century, Russia received more caviar than it produced during this period, turning the tables on tradition. It wasn’t long before things flipped back to normal once again.
The Golden Age of Caviar
As the 20th century progressed, Americans began to take their cues from European aristocracy and adopt the customs of the wealthy classes to replicate their indulgent lifestyles.
Caviar, which did not yet have that royal reputation in the States, was reserved for the richest, largely due to overfishing and the rise of other global powers.
It didn’t take long for the upper crust of American society to import caviar from abroad, putting it once again out of the reach of working classes.
Caviar prices were soon so astronomical that the product was only made available to the very richest bankers, politicians, and business tycoons.
It was at this time that the prestigious label “Russian Caviar” became common parlance in American culture, and many people still make this association today, despite the global caviar market having been through many changes since.
To this day, the most coveted caviar comes from the Ossetra and Beluga sturgeon of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and people around the world can pay more than $350 an ounce for the best caviar on earth.
Affordable and Accessible
The caviar landscape continued to change as the 20th century advanced, and regulatory measures made fishing in the Black and Caspian Seas more challenging than ever.
New regulations meant that caviar producers had to seek new aquaculture methods that would yield quality caviar at a much more sustainable rate, even if it meant losing some profits in the short term.
This plan has paid off, thankfully, and as it stands now, the caviar landscape is rich with variety and with a reasonable barrier of entry.
Consumers can not only import caviar from anywhere in the world using the internet and fast-tracked shipping methods, but they also have access to local, sustainable farms that would not have been possible just a few decades ago.
It’s not just for the Tsar’s any longer— delicious caviar and roe alternatives are available at most local specialty food spots or can be shipped to your door in days.
Boutique producers are also taking the initiative to create hybrid caviar creations that tap into never-before-seen flavors, colors, and textures. Plus, fisheries are testing out new, humane methods of egg harvesting that yield great caviar while keeping the sturgeons alive and well.
There is no doubt we are living in the greatest time in history for the widespread enjoyment of quality caviar, and that is absolutely something worth celebrating!
The history of caviar is a rollercoaster ride that takes us across nearly every continent and through many memorable phases of global economics, politics, and culture.
We’re happy to say that caviar’s most recent chapter has undoubtedly been its best, as more people than ever before have access to the product that has been untouchable for centuries.
It will be very exciting to see where aquaculture, engineering, and the culinary arts take this famous ingredient, and Imperia Caviar will be on the front lines producing some of the finest products in the world.
If you are interested in our caviar philosophy and have unanswered questions, please consult our FAQ guide and feel free to drop us any pressing inquiries.