Caviar’s History

Depending on whom you ask, there seems to be some conjecture as to the origin of the term “caviar.” If you ask the Italians, “caviar” was first introduced into the English language via Italy in the 1600s. If you ask the Turks, it was derived from the Turkish word khavyar, (found in English print in the late 1500s). If you ask the Persians, it is ultimately from ancient Persia who called sturgeon roe: mahi-e Khayedar, defined as literally “egg-bearing fish.” 

Sturgeons have existed for nearly 250 million years, and caviar has been around almost since the dawn of the first civilizations. For example: the ancient Persians cultivated caviar for medicinal purposes from the Caspian and Black seas; the ancient Greeks also used caviar for medicinal purposes and Aristotle mentioned caviar in his writings. Ancient Roman parties frequently served caviar at its banquets (of course they did).

Despite the availability of caviar, it was exclusively enjoyed by the upper elite in most countries. This exclusivity existed and continued for hundreds of years, well into the Middle-ages; and even the likes of Batu Khan (the grandson of Ghengis Khan) appreciated caviar in the mid-1200s. Caviar was often used as a gift to royalty, and later earmarked solely for the consumption of royalty throughout Europe. Not unexpectedly, given the Caspian Sea’s proximity to Russia, Russian Czars took full benefit of this new delicacy and hastily became the primary consumers of caviar. Czar Nicholas II loved caviar so much, he even levied an annual tax on fisherman (paid in the form of caviar). Although technically the Persians were the pioneers of salted caviar, it was the Russians who first introduced lightly-salted caviar (malossol caviar), which is the preferred caviar still eaten to this day.

Naturally, all of this decadence couldn’t last, and finally in the early 1900s, caviar ceased to be entirely available to royalty and the elite, when caviar production shifted from major sources in Europe to Canada and the United States when Sturgeon were found in rivers and lakes throughout North America. This new supply was in such great abundance that not only did Canada and the U.S. supply most of Europe with caviar, but the caviar itself was often served in taverns, saloons, and beer halls (often for free- its saltiness helped to increase the drinking and sale of beer). 

The sale and feasting of caviar by the multitudes didn’t last long, and caviar soon returned to being solely available to the rich and elite around 1910 due to the massive overfishing of the sturgeon population. This all but halted caviar production in Canada and the U.S. and made caviar an expensive luxury item once again. Not surprisingly, the overfishing in Canada and the U.S. was reflected in the Caspian Sea as well; solidifying caviar’s place in history as an high-class food. 

Seven decades later, in 1988 the sturgeon finally got some help when it was recognized as an endangered species and trade regulation was introduced; however, despite these new regulations, black-market trading as well as rampant poaching, put further pressure on the future of caviar. Today there is a strict limit on the amount of sturgeon that can be harvested (not to mention the process of harvesting the eggs as well). As a result, different forms of caviar (farmed, less-expensive caviar) have quickly become the custom in an otherwise highly-expensive product market.

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