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History Of Caviar

From farm to table

Sturgeon have been around for over 250 million years and are found only in the Northern Hemisphere. Some live most of their lives in brackish or salt water, but like salmon, return to fresh water for spawning. However, sturgeon can spawn multiple times throughout their lives, and can live to be over 100 years old.

The first written records of people eating caviar are from Batu Khan’s time (grandson of Genghis Khan) in the 1240s.

The caviar industry started in Eurasia and around the Mediterranean. Sturgeon roe was heavily salted and packed in wooden casks that preserved it for long periods of time.

Malossol, or lightly salted caviar which we generally eat today, was not available until chilled transportation was developed.

Caviar became internationally known at the end of the 18th century thanks to the Greek sailor and businessman Ioannis Varvarkis, who introduced it to Europe from Russia.

The consumption of sturgeon meat became popular throughout the 19th century, causing the species of sturgeon commonly found in Western Europe that supplied local European markets to be gradually used up. As a result, caviar became increasingly scarce in Europe.

At the same time as the disappearance of sturgeon in Western Europe (that is, in the second half of the 19th century), sturgeon caviar production was being developed in North America, first on the East Coast and then on the West Coast. The quality of this was so good that in the last 10 years of the 19th century, the price multiplied 20-fold.

There was so much caviar being produced in North America at that time that bars would often serve the salty delicacy to encourage more beer drinking, as peanuts are served today. At the end of the 19th century, there was more caviar going to Europe from North America than from Russia.

In 1875, caviar began for the first time to be packed in metal tins of a few kilos instead of the traditional 55-kilo wooden barrels. This allowed, on the one hand, smaller units to be sold, and on the other hand, the shelf life to be extended, since these tins could be pasteurised. Subsequently, around 1907, a vacuum packing system was developed using small 30 or 60 gramme glass containers.

By 1915, there were so few white and Atlantic sturgeon left in North America that all fisheries were closed to both sport and commercial use. It was only in the 1950s that a sport fishery was allowed on the West Coast for white sturgeon.

Sturgeon have been around for over 250 million years and are found only in the Northern Hemisphere.


Once wild sturgeon stocks had been wiped out in North America and Europe, more than 95% of the world’s supply of caviar was obtained from sturgeon from the Caspian Sea in Russia and Iran

In the middle of the 20th century, the Russians began serious industrialisation and started building dams on the major rivers that flow into the Caspian Sea, so sturgeons, which spawn in fresh water, were blocked in their spawning runs. As a result, captures of sturgeon began to decrease. To remedy the situation, Soviet scientists began to study the reproduction and artificial insemination of sturgeon in order to produce fry from those that were repopulating the Caspian Sea.


With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the strict controls on caviar production diminished. The new free states found that caviar sales were a rapid way to generate cash, which led to uncontrolled over-fishing of sturgeon. Together with contamination and a reduction in water levels in rivers, this brought sturgeon from the Caspian Sea to the brink of extinction.

Iran was able to maintain a close control of the caviar industry on the southern end of the Caspian Sea, but global resources in this sea continued to diminish.

Wild sturgeon stocks are currently a serious cause for concern worldwide. In 1998, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) added all species of sturgeon to Appendix II of the convention, considering them all to be at risk of extinction and therefore prohibiting the marketing of both wild sturgeon and its derivative products on the international markets.

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