HISTORY OF CAVIAR

Sturgeon evolved more than 250 million years ago and are only found in the northern hemisphere. Some of them spend most of their lives in salt or brackish water but, like the salmon, they go back to fresh water to lay their eggs. A sturgeon can lay eggs several times over its lifetime, which may exceed 100 years.

The first records of eating caviar are from the time of Batu Khan (nephew of Ghengis Khan) round 1240.

The caviar industry started in Eurasia and round the Mediterranean. Sturgeon eggs were heavily salted and packed in wooden barrels, allowing them to be kept for long periods.

Malossol, or the lightly salted caviar that we eat today, did not become available until the development of refrigerated storage and transport of food.

Caviar become world-renowned in the late 18th century, thanks to the Greek sailor and trader Ioannis Varvarkis. who introduced it to Europe from Russia.

Eating sturgeon became ever more popular through the 19th century, leading to the gradual extinction of the species that had thrived in Western Europe and supplied local European markets. As a result, caviar became progressively scarcer in Europe.

In parallel with the disappearance of sturgeon from Western Europe, in the second half of the 19th century, North American caviar production using sturgeon on first the East and then also the West coast, was growing. The quality of West Coast caviar was so high that over the course of the last 10 years of the 19th century, the price rose twentyfold.

So much caviar was produced in the United States at that time that bars used to put it out as a salty snack to encourage beer drinking, as they do now with peanuts. At the end of the 19th century, Europe was importing more caviar from the USA than from Russia.

n 1875 caviar started to be packed for the first time in tins containing only a few kilogrammes instead of the traditional wooden barrels holding more than 55 kilos, which made way not only for the sale of small quantities but also to extending the shelf-life of the product, since the tins could be pasteurised. Round about 1907, a vacuum packing process for glass bottles holding 50 or 60 grams was developed.

In 1915, there were so few White and Atlantic sturgeon left in the USA that both sports fishing and commercial fishing of sturgeon were banned. It wasn’t to be until the 1950s that sports fishing of white sturgeon on the West coast would be allowed again.

Sturgeon evolved more than 250 million years ago and are only found in the Northern Hemisphere.

When wild populations of sturgeon in America and Europe started to be exhausted, caviar production moved to the Caspian Sea, to the point where at one time more than 95% of global production came from sturgeon in the Caspian Sea in Russia and Iran.

In the mid-20th century, the Russians embarked on massive industrialisation and started to build dams on the main rivers feeding into the Caspian Sea, blocking the sturgeon’s way to their fresh water spawning grounds and as a result the numbers of sturgeon caught started to drop. To mitigate the situation, Soviet scientists began to investigate artificial reproduction and fertilisation of sturgeon to produce fry that they could use to restock the Caspian Sea.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, strict controls on caviar production eased. The new free states soon found that the sale of caviar was a good way to generate cash quickly, which led to massive and uncontrolled fishing for sturgeon, which with contamination and reduced flow in the rivers, brought the sturgeon of the Caspian Sea to the verge of extinction.

Iran was able to maintain strict control over the caviar industry in the extreme South of the Caspian Sea for longer, but the overall resource in the Sea continued to decline.

Today, the survival of wild sturgeon populations is a matter of serious global concern. In 1998, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed all species of sturgeon in its Appendix II, as all of them were considered to be at risk of extinction, thereby banning the international sale of wild sturgeon and anything produced from wild sturgeon.