Books, Food

A (Very) Short History Of Caviar

Caviar, in Petrossian's signature blue tin.
Caviar, in Petrossian’s signature blue tin.

This may sound improbable, but caviar wasn’t a status symbol in the West until as late as the 19th century. In “Caviar,” Inga Saffron writes that it was originally treated as refuse.

Despite the abundance of sturgeon in the European waters, until the 1860s fishermen commonly tossed the fish’s roes to their pigs, if they did not simply leave them to rot on the banks.

The sturgeon—the fish that supplies us caviar—enjoyed a luxury status in ancient Greece and Rome. Its meat was highly prized and was very expensive. But its eggs weren’t eaten.

Until about 600 years ago, caviar was unknown in Europe.

By the 12th century, it was showing up in Constantinople, then the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church, but it was only in the 14th century, when Venetian ships made trips to the Black and Caspian seas and returned with barrels of little fish eggs that word of its existence spread.

Even so, it was far from relished. When the French king Louis XV, was offered a handful of roe by an emissary of Peter the Great, he found it so unpalatable that he spat it out on the regal carpets of the Versailles.

Long before it became an epicurean pleasure, caviar was a food of the faithful, eaten by both peasants and aristocrats alike. It’d been known in Russia, since the Middle Ages. It’d gained popularity as an ecclesiastical staple, before it occupied place of pride on the czar’s dining table. In 1280, the Russian Orthodox Church formally sanctioned caviar and sturgeon as foods that could be consumed during religious fasts, when meat and rich delicacies were forbidden.

Astrakhan, a city on the Volga River in southern Russia, had been the hub of Russian caviar since the 16th century. By the time the Communists came to power in 1917, it’d become the world’s leading producer of the shiny globules. But under the new regime, the family-run caviar houses were dismantled and nationalized. Caviar production became a highly controlled state-run industry for the next 70 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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