Caviar's Rich History

One of the few foods associated with luxurious feasts across the world, caviar is a delectable treat that can be eaten by itself, served on freshly buttered toast topped with a dollop of crème Fraiche, consumed together with Blini and sour cream or even small steamed potatoes.

While caviar today means roe from several different fish, historically caviar came from a single type of fish that supplied this succulent food.

Many of us may forget the generations and generations of history that are deeply ingrained within some of our favorite foods, such as caviar. The stories may get lost, or we simply are unaware of a flavor or dish beginnings.

We'd love to share with you the flavorful history of caviar, where it came from, how it has evolved, and the most popular varieties known today.

What is Caviar?

Caviar in its simplest form is the roe from a female sturgeon fish or fish eggs. Sturgeon is a more common name for roughly 27 species of the fish belonging to the family Acipenseridae. The earliest known fossil of a sturgeon dates to the Late Cretaceous and descended from even earlier acipenseriform fishes who date back to the Triassic period some 245 to 208 million years ago.

This fish is also sometimes known as the fossil fish, and rightfully so. The sturgeon's eggs are harvested from the female sturgeon before fertilization and cured with salt to enhance flavor and increase shelf-life. This delicacy became known as caviar.

Earliest Mentions of Caviar

Humans have been consuming fish eggs since prehistoric times, yet the word caviar itself did not exist until the more modern era.

China had been salting carp roe for hundreds of years before Batu Khan and members of the Golden Horde allegedly feasted on salted sturgeon roe after their Russian campaign roughly in 1240 A.D.

The earliest records of roe being consumed as a delicacy are often attributed to the writings of the Greek scholar Aristotle. In 4th Century B.C., he described roe, or caviar, as "the eggs of the sturgeon, heralded onto banquets amongst trumpets and flowers."

The word Caviar is rooted in the Persian khaya for 'egg'. Iran's Safavids began trading sturgeon roe with Russia in the 16th century A.D. and called the food khav-yar or khaviyar which loosely translates to "cake of strength/power." The spelling of caviar that we know today is French.

While the consumption of fish eggs is widely noted in other civilization's histories, the Russian Empire remains the most attributed to the creation of the modern-day caviar industry. Tsarist autocrats monopolized the higher quality sturgeon roe through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, keeping the best caviar for the nobility and monarchs that propelled caviar into the food of high status. By the 20th century, salted roe from the sturgeon was being consumed at such a rate that devastation was soon to follow.

Over Harvesting

During the boom of caviar, America's waters used to be abundant with sturgeon, a resource that German immigrant Henry Schacht took advantage of in 1837 setting up a business to export American sturgeon roe to Europe. Others soon followed his path, and by the end of the 19th century, the United States was the largest exporter of caviar in the world.

During this explosion of popularity, much of the harvest was shipped to Europe from the USA and then imported right back from Europe to the USA, labeled as the more coveted, "Russian caviar." But because of the boom in the USA caviar of the early 1900s, sturgeon became overfished nearly to the point of extinction.

18 out of the 27 remaining varieties of sturgeon remaining on the planet today are considered on a list of threatened species, making sturgeons one of the planet's most endangered groups of species as well. Caviar quickly went from being wild-caught to having emergency government regulations in place to protect the remaining wild sturgeon left. Not only was caviar from sturgeon roe then considered a delicacy, but one of the rarest.

To continue providing this decadent and delicious treat, alternative methods needed to be considered.

Unfortunately, farm raising sturgeon is a costly endeavor. Most sturgeons are long-lived and late-maturing fishes, meaning their output of roe is slow and the cost of keeping them healthy and happy is steep, meaning sturgeon roe—also known as True Caviar—is still one of the most expensive kinds on the market today. In some cases, the cost is still so prohibitive few would be able to purchase it.

Caviar Varieties

As the demand for roe increased and the prices of sturgeon caviar became inaccessible to most, while availability dropped due to over-harvesting of fish, the world turned toward other cultures and other fishes for roe.

The Romanoff Caviar Company turned to salmon, lumpfish, and later, whitefish for more economical sources than the importing of caviar. Today, there are many economical, environmentally conscious caviars from many different fishes to choose from that many say are just as good, or better than the extremely rare sturgeon caviar.

At Wholey's, we supply the top-quality, best tasting and freshest caviar from the very same company that turned to more eco-friendly sources. We have caviars such as:

  • Red caviar, or salmon fish eggs. Red caviar when harvested at precisely the right time holds many similarities to the rare black caviar with its juicy pop of salty savory. In Japan, it was and still is widely used and you may just recognize it today at your local sushi restaurant as Ikura.
  • Black Lump Caviar. The most affordable and considered the best entry-level caviar to try as an alternative to the more expensive caviars. It is especially useful as a stand-in for gourmet ingredients, for sushi or canapes. Firm, crunchy texture with a pop of salty-fish flavor, these eggs are generally fine-grained.
  • Vodka Lump Caviar. This bright red lumpfish roe has the same satisfying, mild fish and salt flavoring with a splash of vodka that customers rave about really bringing out the more subtle flavors of the caviar.
  • Whitefish Caviar also is known as Golden whitefish caviar or Great Lakes Whitefish caviar is a delicate and small roe. Its rich, golden color is often used frequently with red salmon roe on sushi and has a crisp, clean, and milder flavor than most which many agree is easier on the palette.

Caviar is one of the world's oldest delicacies. Well before champagne or truffles, caviar was coveted by kings and aristocracy. Today, this rich food is available to all and we encourage you to add this famed delicacy to your adventurous cooking or meal plans.