This Is How Caviar Became A Food Of The Elite
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Think Caviar and you think of excess and opulence, something that only millionaires can afford. But if you think about it, that makes little sense. After all, caviar is essentially salted fish eggs. It’s not exactly a rare delicacy like truffles or foie gras. So how did this affordable food become so exclusive and prestigious? 

Caviar has been around for centuries. Most historians believe that the first caviar was produced in the Caspian Sea area, where the roe of sturgeon fish has been eaten since as early as the 10th century. Some even claim that caviar was eaten at the legendary King Arthur’s Round Table. That’s probably because sturgeons have been in British waters since the time of the stories about Arthur, and the fish is known for its roe. Caviar spread throughout Europe in the 1400s, and, by the 1800s, the delicacy had become a staple food in many parts of Europe. In the U.S., sturgeon have been fished commercially since the 1800s, and caviar has been a part of American culture ever since.

Over time, caviar has morphed from a staple food to a rare delicacy. This rise in popularity can be traced to a couple of things: first, the supply of caviar in the world and, second, its demand. During the Industrial Revolution, sturgeon populations started dwindling even as caviar became more and more popular. Around the same time, another revolution was about to be unleashed - the rise of nouvelle cuisine. Instead of heavy, hearty dishes, chefs were focusing on light, delicate, flavorful foods. Caviar was a perfect fit for nouvelle cuisine. Caviar also received an image makeover. Instead of being seen as a food for poor people, it was rebranded as a food for the affluent and the elite, becoming an exclusive delicacy. Eventually, those two factors caused the price of caviar to skyrocket.

Caviar, like most luxury foods, is a victim of its own success. People love caviar so much that the delicacy is almost in danger of extinction. Sturgeon are one of the main sources of caviar, and the demand for the delicacy has been steadily rising for years. As the popularity of caviar grew, sturgeon populations started to drop. Humans were overfishing the sturgeon, and the fish was being over-harvested. That created a supply problem, since sturgeon take a long time to mature and have very low reproductive rates. With the sturgeon population unable to keep up with demand, once supply was hit, demand outstripped supply. In a short time, caviar, which was eaten by all social classes, became prohibitively expensive for the masses. 

The Russian Revolution happened in the early 1917, and the entire region fell under communist rule. Caviar from the Caspian Sea became a delicacy that only the rich in Russia could afford. It was no longer available to the rest of the world, and the price of caviar shot up considerably.

Sustainable fishing practices are critical to the future of the caviar industry. That’s because overfishing has caused a serious decline in sturgeon populations. Caviar companies need to take care to protect sturgeon populations by limiting their catch. The main species used for the most popular Caspian Sea caviar is the beluga sturgeon. The Caspian sea yields 6 varieties of caviar - Beluga, Kaluga hybrid, Ossetra, Sterlet, Sevruga and the Siberian sturgeon. The American White Sturgeon caviar is more popular in the U.S, so that helps ease a bit of pressure. But matters got so bad in the Caspian Sea region that Russia suspended wild caviar production between 2008 and 2011. There are also other species used that are considered sustainable. Especially some types of sturgeon in the U.S. like the Shovelnose, Lake sturgeon, and a few others.

The least expensive variety of caviar today costs upwards of Rs 10,000 for a mere 30 grams. Beluga caviar can cost between Rs 20,000 and 25,000 for an ounce (28 gms). At the higher end, a tablespoon of Strottarga Bianco can cost upwards of 30,000 USD or around 25 lakh rupees!

One thing is certain: caviar will remain an exclusive delicacy as long as the main source of it, the sturgeon, is threatened with extinction. Caviar manufacturers have been trying to find ways to make the delicacy less expensive and less endangered for years. For example, some companies have been experimenting with artificial incubation to create cheaper caviar. There is one solution that could make caviar less expensive and the sturgeon less imperiled: aquaculture. Growing sturgeon in a controlled environment instead of in open waters, if successful, would solve two problems. It would create a source of caviar that isn’t threatened by overfishing, and it would give caviar companies a steady supply of product.