Caviar was once served as an appetizer in saloons of the Old West. In another time it was considered extremely valuable and only suitable to be served to royalty and the upper class. What exactly is caviar? Why is it so highly prized and so expensive? Here are the facts on where caviar comes from and what all the fuss is about.
Caviar refers to the salted eggs (roe) of the fish species sturgeon. Caviar comes from the Persian word Khaviar which means "bearing eggs". Some eggs from other species (such as salmon, paddlefish, whitefish, and lumpfish) may be labeled caviar if the name of the fish is included.
The three main types of caviar: beluga, sevruga, and osetra, referring to the sturgeon species the caviar comes from.
- Beluga, the largest eggs, comes from the species Huso huso. Huso huso typically weighs 80 to 400 pounds when harvested and may weigh up to 2,000 pounds. 15 percent of its weight is eggs. The female Huso huso doesn't bear eggs until around 25 years old and may live up to 150 years. Beluga has a rich, creamy flavor and delicate texture. Its rarity, however, is what makes it the most esteemed of all caviars.
- Sevruga caviar is obtained from Acipenser stellatus. These small sturgeon are usually under 50 pounds. Sevruga is light gray in color and has a creamy texture and strong flavor.
- Osetra (Osciotr), the rare golden caviar (or Imperial caviar), comes from Acipenser guldenstaedti. These sturgeon range in size from 40 to 160 pounds. Although the golden caviar is highly prized, the eggs of this species are often more brownish in color. The caviar has a distinctive nutty flavor.
Producers and Importers
Most caviar production is centered in the Caspian Sea, with the two main producers being Russia and Iran (along with the countries of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan). Sturgeon, however, is not confined to this area. There are at least 50 species in the northern hemisphere and may also be found in North America, China, and France.
Major importers of caviar are the United States (20% of Caspian Sea exports), Switzerland, Japan, and the European Union (mostly France, Belgium, Germany, and the UK).
All sturgeon are endangered or threatened due to overfishing, poaching, black market trading, and habitat loss. Currently, only two sturgeon species are banned from harvesting, Acipenser brevirostrum and Acipenser sturio. Other species are protected by CITES. CITES stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Countries may export caviar if they can prove that doing so is not detrimental to the survival of the species. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service must inspect all caviar coming into the United States. Their forensics laboratories have methods of determining the species and country of origin of the caviar.
Malossol refers to caviar that has very little salt. With modern refrigeration and sanitation techniques, the amount of salt needed as a preservative is not as great as it once was.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, the United States was one of the greatest producers of caviar in the world. Due to overfishing, commercial sturgeon harvesting was banned early in our history.
Today, mostly through farm-raised varieties, caviar production has returned to America. Some American caviar is very high in quality and has been compared favorably to wild Caspian caviar.