From rags to riches – Russia

Antonius Caviar

The history of caviar is a story of a “social advancement” it has undergone from country cottages to tsarist palaces. Between XIII and XVII century caviar was considered a medicine for children, it was a source of valuable food for Russian lower class and a popular dish during fasting season. The reason was very simple – caviar was cheaper than fish. Soon everything was about to change…

Caviar was mentioned in Russia for the first time in 1240 when the Mongols came to this country. The grandson of Genghis Khan, Batu Khan, spared a monastery in Uglich, (a town in the western part of Russia), after he had been served a dessert made of baked apple with caviar during the feast prepared for him by the monks.

Religious traditions that dictated even two hundred days of fast per year naturally contributed to the development of meatless cuisine in Russia, and fish were given special respect. A reference from 1656 mentioned a Palm Sunday feast organized by the tsar’s treasurer during which the cooks served more than 60 fish dishes, of which 15 were made from sturgeon and caviar in various forms. The roe was served fresh, but also pressed, you could try sturgeon garnished with cucumbers and in may other ways. There were also more “controversial” dishes, such as sturgeon marrow with horseradish, pie with sturgeon milt or lateral backbone of beluga.

1696 was the moment when the caviar’s career began to flourish. Not only was it the year when Russia began to open up to Europe, both culturally and culinary, but it was also the moment when Tsar Peter the Great came to the throne. Undoubtedly, in many ways he was a greatly honoured and distinguished figure for Russia. During his reign, caviar was not only served on a tsarist table but it also became an export good to Europe. The actions of Tsar Peter the Great led to regulations concerning sturgeon breeding and fishing in the Caspian Sea. One of the first fish trade offices was founded in Astrakhan and the Cossacks living in these areas received an exclusive right to catch sturgeon. As a result, the control of the whole process of producing caviar became possible.

Further development of the popularity of caviar was fast-paced. Letters of ambassadors sent to their rulers describing a big banquet thrown by Empress Catherine II in order to celebrate the birth of her grandson can testify to its growing position. Caviar was mentioned as one of the culinary treasures of that feast.

Despite the fact that caviar became luxury product overnight and was sought by many distinguished figures of those times, in Russia it was still food for the poor with market value not exceeding the price of butter. However, over time, the growing love of magnates for sturgeon roe caused that more and more often caviar was reserved only for the aristocracy.

Technological innovations emerging in the XIX century contributed to development of caviar trade. In 1820 a refrigeration device was introduced and in 1859 a railway line between Moscow and the Volga River was opened. Due to innovations caviar could be transported in appropriate conditions in a much shorter time. This resulted in the outbreak of “sturgeon dynasties” producing caviar on the shores of the Caspian Sea and led to an increase in the production of caviar, from 4 tons recorded in 1860 to 3 000 tonnes in 1900. Caviar became a luxury product and consequently its price rose significantly. Therefore, Russian workers lost their privilege of enjoying caviar on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, although with such sudden and strong demand for caviar at the turn of 19th and 20th century fishermen and traders got richer and richer, this period also turned out to be a great threat for the sturgeon population. However, the political situation became a rescue – the revolutions of 1917 and World War I was a respite for sturgeon from the Caspian Sea.

However, this period of calmness did not last long. The Soviet Union which, was formed after the war, was well aware of the opportunity of enrichment offered by the “black gold”. Stalin had an ambitious plan to make caviar a Russian icon which could be based on its uniqueness. Perverse as it may sound, Stalin cared about building Soviet luxury brands, so he wanted to create a special background for caviar too. He therefore established state breeding farms and set fishing and selling limits. Also he specified who could be a suitable recipient of caviar. Unfortunately, while doing calculations he did not take into account poaching which bloomed proportionally to the increasing government restrictions.

Years 1950-1990 were sad for breeding sturgeon in the Caspian Sea; with the development of hydroelectric power plants on the Volga River, a natural fish breeding cycle was disturbed.  Stalin had a plan to provide its citizens with electricity in the whole country but sturgeons, with their own habits, acted against his expectations and did not use special passages on the Volga River and did not lay eggs in designated places. In order to help the sturgeon population survive, authorities decided to introduce protection periods and refilled fish fry annually.

Unfortunately, the period of time after the Soviet Union collapsed has not been peaceful for the fish on their way up the river every year. As a result of poaching much younger and thus less mature fish are caught and have no chance to reach the level of maturity which guarantees that the species would survive.