By Zubin D’Souza
Caviar dreams, champagne and caviar, caviar black dresses, shimmering like millions of tiny caviar eggs – these are all words that have been used by famous authors in the past to denote the ultimate in luxury. Truly, caviar is indeed one of the most luxurious food items to ever grace a table. Judging by the tiny little eggs that you hold in your hands, you may not guess that a teaspoon of the stuff could give you an artery full of cholesterol, a kidney full of sodium and yet cost the annual minimum wage of several countries.Caviar production dates back to ancient times and was rumoured to have graced the table of Queen Cleopatra when she entertained Julius Caesar and then later, Marc Anthony.
Caviar is the salt cured roe or fish-eggs which is obtained from the sturgeon fish primarily from the Caspian Sea which is the world’s largest salt-water lake or the Black Sea and occasionally the Adriatic Sea. It scientifically encompasses the roe from all members of the Acipenseridae family (which is a family that dates back millions of years) and in several countries could also include lumpfish, steelhead or whitefish roes. Technically in culinary terms, these cheaper forms of caviar are known as mock caviar and any self-respecting connoisseur would not touch it with a silver spoon.
Speaking of spoons, caviar is usually served in a mother of pearl spoon because it has a neutral taste that does not clash with the delicate and subtle caviar flavour. Having a mother of pearl spoon also adds a touch of class to a very prestigious caviar tasting.
Caviar has always been a symbol of envy and prestige. Sterlet caviar which is a rare form of caviar, prized for its golden hue and definitely not the highest grade in caviar was at one point in time only reserved for nobility and the royal families. The highest grade of caviar is obtained from the Beluga sturgeon and is known as beluga caviar. This quality is followed grade-wise in quick succession by Sterlet, Ossetra and Sevruga.
The Beluga Sturgeon (the name beluga means white in Russian) is fished from the Caspian Sea which is the area that borders Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The fish can grow up to sixteen hundred kilos and about thirty feet in length. A female sturgeon may carry up to fifteen percent of her body weight in the form of roe. The fish yields eggs that are much larger (almost green-pea sized) than those obtained from other strains and can cost up to ten thousand dollars a kilo. The most expensive caviar in the world is Almas Iranian caviar (Almas being the Russian name for diamond) which costs an eyebrow-raising twenty five thousand British pounds for a kilo. The roe comes from the extremely rare centennial (being a hundred years old) albino sturgeon that is found in the Caspian Sea. The caviar is so highly thought of; that it comes packed in twenty four carat gold tin. This is definitely not something that you want to take lightly. The caviar is almost white in appearance and follows the general rule that older the sturgeon, the lighter the colour of the eggs and the more exquisite the flavour. I guess at 25K pounds for a kilo, I would be itching for much more than an exquisite flavour.
When you trade at such high prices, it is natural that more and more people want to move into the game. Overfishing has almost driven the Beluga sturgeon to the brink of extinction (which we shamefully managed to do in forty years and almost wiping out an entire species of fish that could date back almost two hundred million years) and it is a highly endangered species. In fact Russia had banned the fishing of sturgeon and the export of caviar for three years to allow the wild stock to replenish. Several countries have actually banned the fishing of sturgeon in the wild which has given rise to a booming farmed sturgeon industry where the returns are lucrative but the quality does not receive the high grades reserved for the Almas or Beluga from the wild.
Well, none of luxury or exquisiteness of taste could ever compel me to bring another species to go extinct.