A History of Caviar
Caviar has always been the delicacy of aristocrats and sophisticated gourmands. Even though one can buy black or red caviar nowadays in a supermarket, it is nothing like the real thing. There are more than 400 species of sturgeon in the world, but only three of them—Beluga, Oscierte, and Sevruga (which inhabit the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov, and the Black Sea respectively)—are used to obtain caviar.
The caviar has four types. The first—the Golden or Royal caviar—is the the most expensive and the most difficult to obtain. Centuries ago, it was set aside for the exclusive consumption of Russian czars and Manchurian emperors, and even the Vatican. In Iran, until quite recently, this caviar was exclusively reserved for the Sheik alone, and if someone was caught eating Royal caviar, he was punished by having his right hand cut off!
The origins of Royal caviar are unclear. Some say it is acquired from Oscierte sturgeon that are over sixty years old, and as it ages, its caviar gains a pale golden shade, and the flavor becomes smooth, creamy, and tender. Others believe that it is obtained from albino Beluga or Oscierte sturgeon, whose caviar is in an off-white color. The albino sturgeon caviar is very expensive, because these fish are extremely rare, even though in taste, the albino caviar only slightly differs from the pale Oscierte’s caviar.
The second type of caviar is the Oscierte sturgeon caviar (A gueldenstaedi), which in its way is the most interesting, because it offers the widest range of caviar sizes, colors, and flavors. This sturgeon produces caviar when it is between 12 – 15 years of age. The caviar of the youngest fish is large with a dark golden color. As the fish ages, the color of its caviar fades to light amber, and the flavor becomes more tender. Some say that when the fish gets older, they become more intelligent, dive to the bottom of the sea, and to avoid fishermen, bury themselves in mud and seaweed. This in turn affects the taste of both the sturgeon and its caviar.
The third type, Beluga sturgeon (Huso Huso), is the biggest and the only one that is a carnivore. It is so rare, that the number of Beluga sturgeon caught each year in the Caspian Sea rarely surpasses 100. This fish matures at between 25 – 40 years of age, and thus start producing caviar. The Beluga sturgeon carries caviar that weighs about 25% of its body mass, but there have been cases when a sturgeon has been found carrying caviar that weighed 50% of its mass. The Beluga is highly valued for its large granular eggs and its fine shells. The shades of the caviar vary from light grey (the most highly valued) to almost black.
The final caviar type is obtained from the Sevruga sturgeon (A sellatus), which starts producing caviar at the age of 7 – 10. Caviar caught from Sevruga that are between 8 – 22 years of age is considered the best. It is greyish-black in color, with a fine-grained structure and comparatively the saltiest in taste. Among connoisseurs, this caviar is highly appreciated for its unique flavor. It is also the most common and comparatively the least expensive, because the Sevruga is more common than other sturgeons that are used to acquire caviar. What’s more, they start producing caviar at a much younger age.