We’ve all seen or heard of caviar but how many of us have actually tried it? In today’s post we answer all things caviar. Where does it come from? Why is it so expensive? What does it actually taste like?
Caviar is one of the world’s most expensive foods. It’s the luxury food item that aristocrats around the world can’t do without. It can cost as much as $35,000 per kilogram, which is way beyond the reach of all but the extremely rich. But, the big question is why? Surely no food warrants this kind price tag? Let’s get to the bottom of the great mystery surrounding caviar.
But what is caviar?
In general terms, caviar refers to the eggs (roe) of fish.
However, traditionally caviar only describes the roe of wild sturgeon. These huge fish are native to the Black and Caspian Sea. This type of caviar is the one which is so highly regarded and expensive. There are three types of wild sturgeon that are most prized for their eggs. These are the Ossetra, Beluga and Sevruga sturgeons. The Beluga caviar is probably the most famous because it is the most expensive.
How is caviar produced?
Sturgeon are usually farmed but are still caught wild in the Caspian Sea. The female sturgeon are at least 10 years old when they are ready to lay their eggs. At this point they are caught before being killed for their precious eggs.
The reason that they are killed instead of the eggs just being collected after they are laid is that it is deemed too difficult a task. It couldn’t be done as efficiently and the eggs may spoil in the process. There’s also the chance of fertilization by the male. The male sturgeon will fertilize the eggs lying in the water. Fertilized eggs do not make “quality” caviar.
However, recently more humane methods of collecting caviar have presented themselves. The fish are actually critically endangered because of the unsustainable methods by which they have been farmed over the years. This has led to alternative, more sustainable processes being invented.
One such method, though not particularly humane, is to surgically remove the eggs. Another, slightly kinder method, is to massage the eggs from the fish after inducing labor. Though this technique is very new and some skeptics are unconvinced it will replace the traditional ways.
What does caviar taste like?
Kind of underwhelming really. It’s salty and slightly fishy, a bit like the juice in an oyster. The best caviar is meant to be less salty. This means it’s very fresh and hasn’t spoiled in any way.
Besides the taste, caviar is prized for its texture. The eggs pop in your mouth and release a rich, slightly sweet liquid that fills your mouth.
The salmon roe that is used in sushi is a good approximation of what caviar tastes like. It’s a like a “watered down” version of the real thing.
How to eat caviar
Caviar is traditionally eaten with cold vodka or champagne. It’s usually just eaten straight with a spoon, but sometimes it’s served with toast, potatoes or blini ( a Russian pancake). The key is not to serve caviar with anything that has too strong of a flavor. If you’re paying so much money for it, you sure want to taste it!
It should also be served chilled and over ice. Treat it just like a nice beer and you’ll be fine! Make sure you don’t use anything made of silver when serving it. It is thought that silver transfers a metallic taste to the caviar.
You want to crush the eggs gently in your mouth while breathing in through your nose to experience more of the flavor and get a lingering aftertaste. It is common to then take a shot to cleanse the palette before repeating the process.
Caviar can make a great appetizer or canapé at a party, but only if you know it’s been sourced ethically and sustainably.
Why is caviar so expensive?
The main reason is the current plight of the wild sturgeon. The huge fish have been over-harvested and their natural habitats are being destroyed. Many species of wild sturgeon are now critically endangered and capturing them is illegal. In 2010, the International Union for Conservation of Nature placed 18 species of sturgeon on their red list. This is a list of the most endangered animals that need immediate help. Actually, 85% of sturgeon species are currently at risk of extinction. This makes sturgeon the most endangered species of animal on the planet!
Sturgeon can live for up to 100 years and don’t produce eggs every year like most fish. Some sturgeon might not produce eggs for as many as 20 years. They actually lay millions of eggs at a time, but the chance of any of the young making it to adulthood is extremely low. Usually, only 1 or 2 will make it this far. This makes them particularly vulnerable to fishing, as the population takes a long time to recover.
They are also migratory and travel large distances to lay their eggs in specific places. The damming of rivers has led to them losing access to their natural spawning areas.
The rarity of sturgeon and therefore quality caviar has led to the price getting higher and higher. That means despite capturing sturgeon being illegal (importing caviar is also illegal in most US states) there will always be a black market for it. The largest haul of eggs ever recorded came from a beluga sturgeon that weighed 2,520 pounds. It contained 900 pounds of eggs. In today’s market that would be worth around $500,000. That equates to a serious payday, and makes the temptation to catch these fish too much for many.
8 fun facts about caviar
- The most expensive caviar of all, comes from the Iranian Beluga Sturgeon. Just 1 kg commonly costs £20,000. These eggs come from rare albino fish that are between 60-100 years old.
- The Romans prescribed caviar to treat depression. This sounds at odds with modern science, but they were actually on to something. Caviar is naturally very high in omega-3 fatty acids. These have recently been linked in studies to alleviating depression-like symptoms.
- Caviar is best served cold. The taste and texture are thought to be at their best when chilled, so caviar is usually served over ice.
- Beluga caviar, which is the most prized of all caviars, has been banned in the US since 2005. The reason for this is its critically endangered status in the wild.
- The evolution of the sturgeon fish dates back to the Triassic period around 245 – 208 million years ago. That makes them as old as dinosaurs!
- As far as we know, sturgeon have been hunted for their meat and eggs since 1100 BC. Both Roman and Ancient Greek literature refer to sturgeon.
- July 18th is National Caviar Day. Sadly, not a national holiday.
- Caviar should never touch metallic objects like silver bowls or dishes. It is thought to take on a metallic taste. It is usually served in a glass or crystal bowl and served with a non-metalic spoon.
If we’ve missed anything interesting about caviar then make sure to let us know!
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If you’re craving more facts about the ocean then check out our post on the Aral Sea disaster.