Caviar: Its allure, provenance, and destiny
Copyright: Keyvan Tabari 2005. All Rights Reserved.
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abstract: Look closely at caviar! The dull dark color of those salted eggs of the sturgeon reflects a part of human history. Grandiloquent, you may say; but exaggeration has never hurt caviar. From the staple food of the devout poor on the littoral of the Caspian Sea it rose to the exclusive delicacy of the European aristocracy. Along the way, it engaged the attention of the Mongols and Cossacks, Italian sea merchants and Greek adventurers, the Tsars and the Shahs, Western entrepreneurs of the industrial age and Armenians in diaspora. Caviar may reek of hedonism, but its elevation was equally providential as it received both the blessing of the Christian Orthodox church and the fatwa of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Just as paradoxical, the Russian Communists monopolized and nurtured caviar’s production because they coveted the prestige conferred by this status symbol from the decadent capitalist world. The Islamic regime of Iran lovingly makes caviar mostly for export as a matter of national pride. The origin of the word itself is claimed as a badge of honor by disparate nations. Indeed, the world has literally come to love caviar to death: over fishing has made sturgeon an endangered species. Yet very few know much about caviar. Hamlet, referring to a play as “caviare to the general,” meant to epitomize its esoteric distance from the general public. Many centuries since, the mystique of caviar has kept it still in mystery. Not to diminish the allure of caviar, this story merely attempts to shed more light on it.
keywords: caviar * Caspian Sea * sturgeon * Russian * Iranian * Petrossian *
Romancing the Fish Egg
Imagine yourself in Place Vendome. It is late afternoon. The magnificent Column in the middle, with the statue of Napoleon, back again, perching on its top, casts a long shadow. In the chiaroscuro, it seems tout Paris is strolling toward Cesar Ritz=s hotel at the corner. It is annees folles, the Roaring 20s on this side of the Ocean. The buzz is about the latest Igor Stravinsky piece and the last Diaghilev choreography for the Ballet Russes. You enter the lobby, not grand, but charming and cozy. At the bar they are serving Russian caviar. It is the delicacy that is taking the city by storm.
The unlikely agents of this phenomenon are two young Armenian brothers of Iranian origin, Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian. The Bolshevik revolution interrupted their plan to study law and architecture in Moscow. They left for Tehran, spent several idle months there, and eventually came to France. They wished to study medicine here but could not qualify for the French schools. (Laurence, 2002) The brothers discussed their plight with other members of the Petrossian clan who had also fled the Bolsheviks, abandoning their business of cultivating silkworms in Tbilisi, Georgia. Somebody brought up the subject of caviar. Armenians were old hands in the caviar trade. Lazar Mailoff, whose granddaughter Mouchegh would later marry, had established a caviar business at the river Koure in northern Azerbaijan in the early 19th century. In time, that family became one of the biggest producers of caviar in Tsarist Russia. (Ramade, 1999: 104) Of greater relevance were the contemporary stories of the competing claims of other Armenians, Grigor Petrovic Vanitsovic and the heirs of Stepan Marinovic Lianozov, to the caviar of Iran. Both groups had just lost their rights under fishing concessions in Iran when they could not make the required payments because of the Russian revolution.
With no better alternative in sight, Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian decided to take the leap and go into the Caviar business themselves. They approached the Russian legation in Paris but, lacking credentials, were rebuffed more than once. They persisted. The new Soviet government, drained by the civil war, was in dire need of foreign exchange. It finally agreed to furnish the brothers with a shipment of caviar in return for a suitcase full of French francs. The Petrossian family liquidated virtually all its meager remaining assets to come up with the cash.
The next step was not any easier. The French were a hard sell. In their caviar tasting venues, Melkoum and Mouchegh placed spittoons to receive the haughty rejections from their Gallic guests. (Nalley, 2002; Ramade, 1999: 106) Monsieur Ritz told the Petrossians that he saw Ano future in Caviar,@ but he too eventually yielded to the relentless entrepreneurs and bought a ton for his showcase establishment.
The Petrossians proved to be superb promoters of Caviar. Much of the above story is based on their reporting. They have continued to contribute to the myths surrounding the simple eggs from the sturgeon fish. Who knows how much of this is magic realism? What we do know is that soon not only the French, but also the trend-setting Americans of the Lost Generation — people like Ernst Hemingway, Josephine Baker, the Fitzgeralds, and the Murphys– became Caviar aficionados. (Petrossian Paris; McCaffery, 2000)
The initial core constituency was the Russian émigrés in Paris. If the rich grandees went to the Ritz, the ones who managed to bring out only modest fortunes frequented the Petrossians= caviar shop near Quai d=Orsay. In these exiles= nostalgic reminiscing caviar played not a small
part, since for the upper class Russians caviar was a singular food, distinguishing their culture, a matter of national pride.
A Mixed Provenance
It was not always like that. In fact, the origin of Russian caviar was quite humble, and its rise to prominence owed much to people who were not all Russians. The food=s initial consumers in modern times were the poor parishioners of the Russian Orthodox church near the Caspian Sea. In the late 13th Century, the church sanctioned eating sturgeon and its eggs during religious feasts when meat was forbidden. The roe was much cheaper, and extensive fasting seasons made caviar a staple food of the impoverished. (Saffron, 2002a: 52-53; Saffron, 2002b)
At the time, the temporal rulers of this region were the Mongol descendants of Genghis Khan, and they get the credit for starting the international trade in caviar with exports to Italy. With Venice as the port of entry, by the 15th Century caviar had become a fad that spread to other Italian cities and lasted for two centuries. Galileo who lived in the early 17th Century is the first recorded celebrity who enjoyed caviar so much that he sent it as a gift to his daughter=s convent in Florence. (Ramade, 1999: 10, 11, 14)
It was not until another one hundred years, however, that caviar served as a royal gift, from Peter the Great to King Louis XV of France. Although its taste did not please the King who became the first famous Frenchman to spit it out in public, on the carpets of the Versailles, caviar soon found its proper place among delicacies in the cuisine of the French aristocracy. (Ramade, 1999: 14)
Meanwhile the Tsars had defeated the Mongols, settled a group of pirates and fishermen in their place and, to secure their loyalty, granted them the exclusive right to fish for sturgeon in the Caspian. While these Cossacks were encouraged to produce caviar for export, it was a Greek entrepreneur who would later become the first major international caviar dealer. Ioannis Varavarki obtained his franchise to unrestricted fishing in the Caspian from Catherine the Great, following an accidental meeting with her lover in a St. Petersburg coffeehouse. Varavarki exported so much caviar to Greece in the late 1780s that he had to employ thousands of workers. (Ramade, 1999: 18; Saffron, 2002a: 64)
A truly large scale international transport of caviar, however, had to await the technological advances of the 19th century, especially ice making machines which made it possible to preserve the perishable fish eggs in long journeys, and railroads that shortened the travel time. Now a quarter of the caviar produced in Russia could be exported.
It still took months of careful handling before the delicate food reached European destinations. Therefore, the price of caviar remained high but costliness, ironically, became its main attraction. This was a status food that appealed to the new bourgeoisie of the industrial revolution as they developed a hunger for exotic treats. By the end of the 19th century, caviar was
the rage in Europe of the Belle Époque. It evoked the life style of the wealthy Russian nobles, now frequent visitors to the capitals of Europe whose excesses became a subject of fascination. In Russia, from the time of Peter the Great in the late 17th Century, caviar had been gradually transformed to a food that only the rich could afford. The Russian upper class devised elaborate rituals for gastronomic indulgence, always including caviar in the collection of their colorful hors- d=oeuvres. (Ramade, 1999: 20)
The lucrative market for caviar induced European vendors to look for local sources. The French found enough sturgeon in the Gironde area, north of Bordeaux, to establish a thriving caviar industry. Its very success, however, led to its demise. So much caviar was produced that on the eve of World War I, the delicacy was selling at a price only slightly higher than the cost of a baguette in Paris. (ezcaviar.com) The abundant supply was the result of over fishing which, in turn, caused the virtual extinction of the French sturgeon.
In Germany, it was the sturgeon from the Elbe River near Hamburg that became the source of the local caviar. It enabled the firm of Dieckmann & Hansen (D&H) not only to satisfy the German demand, but to reach for markets in England, Sweden, France, and Austria, thus becoming the first multinational caviar dealer. As in France, however, the German sturgeon supply was soon depleted by over fishing. The problem was confounded here by the industrial pollution of nearby factories which diminished the oxygen needed both by the sturgeon and their river food. D&H began looking elsewhere for surgeon. (Dieckmann & Hansen, 2004)
Sturgeon was not a rare fish. It could be found in many places, all in the northern hemisphere. It has long been familiar to man. Its images are carved in the ancient Egyptian temples, and many Greek classics wrote about it. ((Ramade, 1999: 8 ) As Cicero complained, sturgeon has always been too pricey because it is hard to catch; a jar of sturgeon meat cost as much as one hundred sheep in the second century B.C. (Walker, 2002) Sturgeon was also dear in ancient China, where its caviar was enjoyed as early as the tenth century. Even before that, it is said, the Persians living near the Kura River, north of the Caspian, became the first people to eat caviar, believing that it was a medicine for many diseases as well as a source of energy. (ezcaviar.com)
Medieval Europe did know how to make caviar, but valued sturgeon as a delicacy. The Europeans who settled in America, however, disliked the sturgeon. It was a favorite of the natives. As the fish was cheap, it was later used to feed the slaves. The immigrants who arrived from Europe in the middle of the 19th Century were poor and became additional consumers of the inexpensive sturgeon meat. It was now called AAlbany beef,@ since it was caught in the Hudson River. (What=s Cooking America) Turning the sturgeon=s roe into caviar, however, required the processing expertise which German dealers, led by D&H, brought to America.
By 1870 those dealers were shipping caviar to Hamburg from the sturgeon caught in the Delaware River. (United Press International, 2000) On that river=s banks in New Jersey, a new boomtown, appropriately named Caviar, emerged as the center of the caviar industry in the
United States. In the 1880s, more caviar was made here than in any other country. Most of the American caviar was exported to Europe. Locally, the only notable impact was that a few New York bars offered free caviar in the hope that its salt would cause customers to order more drinks. (Nalley, 2002; Robins, 1994)
In less than three decades, the sturgeon in the East Coast of the U.S. met the same inevitable fate as those in Germany and France; over fishing eliminated its stocks, assisted by the oil slick from Philadelphia=s emerging petroleum industry. The fishermen had already begun moving to the Great Lakes and the Pacific coast. The future was bleak there too. The stocks in Lake Erie and California=s Columbia River were exhausted in a decade. When the catches in the Sacramento River also declined precipitously, California banned the commercial fishing of sturgeon in 1902. The main culprit again was unbridled fishing, while in the Great Lakes, the pollution of the runoff from the sawmills was also a factor.
D&H did not abandon the U.S.; in 1912 it opened the first American caviar retail shop, Romanoff, in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. To obtain caviar, however, D&H, turned toward Russia, first to the Amur River in Siberia but soon to the Caspian Sea, now the last place where sturgeon could be caught in large numbers. There are twenty seven species of sturgeon. (Shoumatoff) The Caspian Sea has been the best habitat for the greatest number and variety, including the three species most coveted for their eggs: beluga sturgeon which produces caviar with the same name, Russian or Persian sturgeon which produces the osetra caviar, and stellate sturgeon which produces the sevruga caviar. A moderately saline water, a special algae, and a mild temperature combine to make the Caspian Sea a singular environment for caviar. (Avakian, 1992)
On the eve of World War II, D&H was the main foreign producer of caviar in the Caspian port of Astrakhan, the center of the Russian caviar industry. Every year it exported 100 tons of Caviar to Europe. (Dieckmann & Hansen 2004) This large quantity, however, was a small fraction of the caviar made in that city. Most of the Russian caviar was consumed locally. With that robust market in mind, a certain Armenian caviar producer, Stepan Matinovic Lianozov, had succeeded in securing an exclusive concession for fishing in the portion of the Caspian Sea which was still outside Russia.
The Iranian Source
Iran was the only other country bordering the Caspian, which is the world=s largest inland body of water, as big as California. An expansionist Russia fought two wars with Iran in the 19th Century and annexed large areas of the Persian Caspian littoral. These defeats had the larger effect of changing Europe=s image of Iran from a strong, enduring empire to a weak state. It became a pawn in the contest between Russia and Britain for supremacy in the region. By playing them against each other, Iran succeeded in gaining international recognition of what are now its current boundaries. Both Russian and England, however, continued their military threat in order to extract economic concessions from Iran.
Russia encouraged and backed the Lianozov family to become increasingly active in fishing in the Caspian provinces of Iran in the 1870s. The Armenian Lianozovs were probably the wealthiest businessmen in Russia=s newly acquired province of Azerbaijan. (Hammarback) When Stepan Matinovic Lianozof/Lianozov made his overtures he had a receptive audience in Iran . Not only were members of his family until recently themselves citizens of Iran, but the Iranian-Armenians in Tehran had easy access to the highest circles of the Iranian political elite. One in particular was Malkum Khan who had risen to become Iran=s ambassador to England, while his father was the influential secretary of the Russian Legation in Tehran. They propagated reformist ideas and among their sympathetic interlocutors was Mushir al-Dawla, Iran=s prime minister from 1871 to 1873. Having obtained from the king a ten-year right to limitless bulk fishing in the Caspian, in 1879 Mushir al-Dawla, now foreign minister, leased his rights to the fisheries to Lianazof/Lianazov for a huge profit. Enjoying the financial benefits of high office was not unusual in Iran. The shah, Nasir al-Din Qajar, was himself a partner in many lucrative transactions, as were his successors. The big money was in selling concessions to foreigners. Even Malkum had now become a lobbyist in this field. For the reformists, there was an additional rationale: modernization with foreign assistance. The Lianozofs gradually created and expanded a modern fishing industry in the Caspian provinces of Iran. They provided all that was necessary for commercial fishing and exported to Russia all catches and fish products, especially including the caviar.
By 1881 Mushir al-Dawla was out of favor. His rights to the Caspian fisheries went to the king=s son, and soon thereafter to the Iranian government which meant the reigning shah, all eager for the revenue. The Lianazofs= concession was extended to 1925. (Amanat, 1997: 15-17, 253-54, 357-364, 393, 399, 417; Alam, 2001: 1)Following the October 1917 revolution in Russia, the Lianozofs stopped paying their dues under the concession. Although they had grown so fabulously wealthy, through their diverse investments, as to be called the Russian Rockefellers, they claimed bankruptcy caused by the Bolsheviks. Indeed, they were the subject of Lenin=s personal wrath in a famous private letter to Maxim Gorki. (Brigham Young University Library) The Iranian government annulled the Liazonofs= contract in June 1918. It leased the Caspian fisheries to another Russian, Grigor Perovic Vanitsof, in 1919 for a term of twenty years, but he too could not make payments. Therefore, in 1921, Iran cancelled his lease and took over the fisheries assets. Meanwhile, the Lianazofs were contesting the nullification of their concession.
Iran=s treaty of friendship with the new Soviet government in 1921 put an effective end to the Lianozofs= claims by providing that the two states would directly resolve the issue of Iranian fisheries. In 1927, they formed a joint venture to which Iran granted a 25 year concession for its Caspian fish and fish products. Russia, in exchange, was to provide all the needed equipment, pay Iran an annual royalty and 15 percent of the gross profit. The net profits remaining were to be shared equally between the two sides. (Caspian Environment Programme: 12) When this joint venture expired in 1953, Iran refused the Soviet Union=s proposal to extend it. Premier Mohammad Musaddeq was in power and he had just nationalized Iran=s oil industry against Britain=s strong protest. Nationalizing the fisheries was in line with Musaddeq=s policy of establishing a negative equilibrium between the East and the West.
The new state-owned Iranian fisheries company soon had numerous fishing installations and processing plant warehouses along the southern coast of the Caspian. The equipment and technology were Russian, and the staff was also trained by the Russians. Some had gone to the Soviet Union for training. Ahmad Barimani who was appointed Director had even brought back a Russian bride. He was from the Caspian region and the presents that he sent from his new post to his best friend, also from his hometown, were telling. They did not include caviar, only mahi safid (Awhite fish,@ or kutum) and some ouzun burun or sevruga sturgeon. These two exhausted the list of popular fish among the people on the Iranian side of the Caspian. Recipes that included the roe of the sturgeon existed in their cuisine (Batmanglij: 31), but were not widely used; they never developed a taste for caviar. The rest of the Iranians consumed much less fish. The arid center of the country is cut off from the narrow Caspian provinces by a mountain range that rises to 18,000 feet, and the transportation facilities were primitive.
The domestic market for caviar increased in proportion to the number of foreign educated Iranians. They were not inhibited by the Islamic clerics who called caviar unclean in the belief that sturgeon did not have scales; not any more than they were by the sounder fatwa about the accompanying vodka. In the prosperous 1970s, fashionable Tehran restaurants, such as la Residence, regularly served the best Iranian beluga that money could buy. Caviar was the gift of choice to foreign dignitaries. In the image-conscious Iran of the last Shah, caviar was projected as quintessentially Iranian. In a 1971 international conference organized in Shiraz to pay Auniversal homage@ to the ancient king Cyrus, the European scholar W. Eiler, delving into an etude lexicale, proclaimed that the very word caviar was a Persian name. He argued that it was the alteration or variant of khaya-dar (having eggs), standing for mahi-e kaviar (egg-bearing fish), referring to any kind of sturgeon, and then, by synecdoche, designating the eggs themselves. (Alam, 2000: 99) Eiler notwithstanding, if not Persian, indeed, what could be the etymology of caviar? It is not Russian as the word for caviar in that language is ikra, meaning spawn. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word came either from Italian caviale or the Turkish khavyar. Why would the Italians coin a word for a food which was not indigenous, but imported? On the other hand, Khavyar does not sound Turkish. The word was first used in the 13th century by the Turkish speaking Mongols who occupied the northwestern Caspian under the leadership of Genghis Khan=s grandson, Batu Khan. (Saffron, 2002a: 52) They could have easily adopted it from Persian; their close relatives adopted the whole Persian language when they came to power in the neighboring areas, Persia and India, around the same time.
The international trade in caviar which began with the Bolsheviks= desperate need for the cash in the Petrossians= suitcase in 1920, eventually grew to bestow on caviar a status far beyond its economic value for the Soviet Union. It was the source of cultural respect which the outcast superpower craved. By restricting production, the communists assured that caviar would remain a luxury product. It was offered ostentatiously at receptions in the Soviet Embassies; while at home it was available only to the Kremlin elite.
The attention paid to the caviar industry was comparable to that the Soviets lavished on their space program. It was run with remarkable efficiency and foresight under the strict control of a single government agency. (Saffron, 2002a: 115; Ramade, 1999: 47) When dams on the river Volga, required for generating electricity, blocked the sturgeon from much of their traditional spawning grounds, beginning in the late 1950s the Russians built hatcheries to breed sturgeon and stock the Caspian. (Ramade, 1999: 47-48) Soviets scientists also perfected a cesarean section type method of removing sturgeon=s eggs which allowed saving the sturgeon=s life. (Bennett, 2004) While these measures promised that surgeon could be protected from demise in the Caspian, in another pioneering work, the Russians developed a new species of caviar producing sturgeon best suited for raising in aquaculture farms.
The Soviets stayed with their exclusive caviar trade partners in France, the Petrossians, and in Germany, Dieckmann & Hansen (D&H). The latter, after World War II, became a subsidiary of its own American creation, the Romanoff Caviar Company. (Dieckmann & Hansen, 2004) Romanoff supplied the U.S. market with Russian caviar it received through D&H. The intensification of the Cold War, however, forced both these companies to import caviar from Iran. This was the only serious threat to seventy years of the Communists= virtual monopoly of the world market in caviar.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had a devastating effect on the caviar industry. The three Caspian Republics of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan declared their independence as new States. Ruled by the same old apparat chiki, but now without any pretense of Marxist idealism, these countries fast descended into third world corruption and inefficiency. While this might have been predictable for the neglected Aperipheries@ of the Soviet Union, the disaster in the Russian Acenter@ was more historic. In what amounted to a sudden death of a country, factories closed, equipment were sold, and controls disappeared. In the ensuing chaos and anarchy, unemployed and impoverished citizens were victimized and, in desperation, many became outlaws.
Nowhere was this state of affairs worse than in the Caspian areas. Russia=s remaining Caspian shore is divided among three federal republics. Two of these, the Moslem Daghestan and the Buddhist Kalmykia, were never fully integrated into Russian society. Less developed, they now provided fertile ground for a new Russian caviar industry, populated by poachers, led by criminal gangs, and unregulated by government or health standards. The third republic, Astrakhan, was not far behind. In all of Russia=s Caspian region, failure to enforce restrictions allowed fishermen and many others to engage in illegal fishing of sturgeon and the production of caviar in makeshift work places; the income was far better than they could find elsewhere in the ruined economy. (McCaffery, 2000; Pala , 2004; Brand, 2002).
As a growing amount of illicit caviar flooded the markets in major Russian cities, its price tumbled. It became affordable, especially to the many Westerners who came to help reconstruct the new Russia. Soon this Russian caviar found its way to the United States where the prosperity of the 1990s created a new class eager to taste the fabled food associated with luxury. Caviar was priced much higher in this country, yet its consumers were numerous. For the first time caviar was now offered not just by specialty shops and restaurants for the rich but also in such commonly accessible places as supermarkets, department stores, train stations, and the internet. Available to many, illicit caviar was democratized for Americans, and the United States became its biggest market outside of Russia.
The illicit Russian caviar had to be imported into this country via shady conduit. Initially, most established dealers were not involved. Gino International which supplied Zabar=s among others, and U.S. Caviar & Caviar that counted American Airline among its clients, were the big firms which were eventually prosecuted for their corrupt practices. The number of new caviar importers mushroomed, however, and as many were able to discount the price with illicit caviar, others also became eager to receive and sell it. A few held out. They joined the connoisseurs to point out the defects of the illicit Russian caviar. Good caviar requires exacting preparation and refrigeration which were hardly observed by the producers of illegal caviar. Caviar must be made before the sturgeon dies; the ovarian sack must be removed carefully from the fish=s womb to avoid destroying the eggs; within minutes ovaries must be massaged gently by hand to separate the eggs from the membrane and salt added at a precise ratio to the weight of the eggs. To protect fresh caviar from spoiling or freezing, it must be preserved at twenty six degrees Fahrenheit. (Saffron 2002a: 43-44. 199, 203-209; McCaffery; Weiner and Simon, 1998; Ramade, 1999: 92-93)
Halal is Better
As Russian caviar prepared with such specifications became rare, Iranian caviar gained more supporters. The debate about whether it was better than Russian caviar was long standing. The real focus of the argument was the osetra, the caviar preferred by the connoisseurs not only over the sevruga but also the more expensive beluga. (Ramade, 1999: 100) Both Russian and Iranian osetra came from the same Caspian sturgeon, gueldenstaedtii. The Russian caviar was preferred by some who maintained that the warm water of the shallow northern Caspian was more nourishing than the colder deep water of the southern Caspian. On the other hand, those who chose the Iranian caviar argued that the deep southern water was cleaner. They also pointed out that the Iranian eggs were younger, fresher, and firmer as the fish was caught at sea, while the Russians caught their fish in the river at the end of their reproductive cycle when the eggs were riper, softer, and older. Finally, they believed that the sturgeon fished in Iran was purer as they were caught in small boats, rushed to the shore and processed one fish at a time, while the Russians operated from huge fishing stations and processed the fish on the boats, mixing the eggs from several fish.
Such arguments aside, now all experts agreed that the Iranian caviar was superior simply because it was made under far better control. In contrast to the crude methods used by the Russian poachers in their kitchens, the Iranian caviar was prepared by careful procedures in well equipped plants. The connoisseurs concurred that it also tasted better. (Bennett, 2004; Wells, 2003; Saffron 2002a: 137-138; United Press International, 2000; Associated Press Newswires, 2000)
Iran, of course, has had its own period of political turmoil, with an eventual outcome for caviar markedly different from Russia=s. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the religious ban became a serious obstacle for the caviar industry in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini was among the clerics who had declared that eating sturgeon and its products was forbidden. In 1983, however, he changed his opinion and pronounced them halal, acceptable, based upon a report by a council of religious and scientific experts that discovered scales on sturgeon, especially on its tail fin. (Alam, 2000: 100) Thereupon Iran embarked on developing an efficient network of processing plants and hatcheries, which every year released nearly 25 million fingerlings to restock the sturgeon population, and an aggressive plan to curtail the pollution in its part of the Caspian. (United Press International, 2000; Weiner and Simon, 1998; Oliver, 2003)
Caviar became Iran=s principal and most valuable fish product. Within two years, domestic consumption doubled, while exports declined. Even then, caviar was one of Iran=s main non-oil exports. The largest portions went to Switzerland, Russia, France, Denmark, Germany, and Japan. (Alam, 2000: 100; Coad , 2004) There was no direct shipment to the Unites States which had imposed an embargo on all imports from the revolutionary Iran due to political disputes.
While the sturgeon poached in Russia became the main source of caviar for the United States, Iran grew to be the largest producer of legal caviar in the world. (Weiner and Simon , 1998)The amount Iran earned from caviar was modest, about $40 million a year, especially compared with its huge oil revenues. The value of caviar was much more in national pride. This was recognized by the American government when it decided in August 2000 to show good will in the hope of easing relations with Iran by lifting its embargo on three items: Iranians believed they made the best caviar, carpet, and pistachio nuts. Some Iranian caviar soon entered this country, but importing more faced a new obstacle. (Weiner and Simon, 1998; Oliver, 2003; Associated Press Newswires, 2000)
Saving the Living Fossil
In the 1990s the poachers in the former Soviet Union caused a drastic decline in the population of sturgeon in the Caspian. They over fished and fished indiscriminately. Sturgeon sought for its caviar is exceptionally vulnerable to being fished out. Only the female sturgeon produces caviar, and it takes her an inordinately long time, from 7 to 20 years depending on the species, to make eggs and the conventional method of harvesting the roe leads to the killing of the fish, thus also eliminating the would be offspring. Aggravating these problems was the poachers’ use of nets with illegal small meshes which did not even spare the smaller sturgeon whose roe was yet to mature fully. (Ramade, 1999 : 28) As future fish were thus prevented from being born in the wild, dependence on hatcheries increased. Most of the Russian hatcheries, however, were closed due to the lack of funds and could not help replenish the sturgeon stocks. Clearly, if this trend continued, sturgeon would become extinct in the Caspian as it had become in so many other places in the past. The magnitude of this loss, however, would be much bigger since ninety percent of the world=s caviar came from the sturgeon remaining in the Caspian. (CITES; United Press International, 2000; Sciolino 2003; Agence France-Press, 2000; Pala, 2001; Robins, 1994)
Sturgeon are truly unique fish. They are as old as the dinosaurs, having survived for more than 250 million years. They are living relics. The alarm about their impending demise was first tolled in 1993 by a Russian sturgeon expert who had just immigrated to the United States, Vadim Birstein. He found sympathetic listeners at an international environmental agency, the World Conservation Union (IUCN). In 1996, IUCN dispatched investigators from its affiliate organization TRAFFIC to the Caspian. Their report confirmed what Birstein had been warning about. It helped galvanize appeals by many scientists for action by the appropriate United Nations agency known as CITES, the acronym for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.
Caviar had thus arrived onto the global table, to be served, in the sense of being protected. Nearly all nations are members of CITES. They are committed to abide by its decisions regarding the export and import of the species which CITES declares under its protection. By restricting international trade in caviar, CITES could reduce the incentives for sturgeon poachers. In 1997 CITES took its first step by pressing Russia to accept limits on its caviar exports. In 1998 CITES assumed the right to restrict all international trade in caviar by designating caviar producing sturgeon as an endangered species. (McCaffery, 2000; Podger, 2004)
The Russian government proved unable to control the poachers. They, instead, successfully bribed the law-enforcement officials and, often, turned them into protectors to ensure that the poaching and smuggling of caviar went undisturbed. (Nalley, 2002; Pala , 2004)) By 2000 the number of sturgeon in the Caspian had declined so much that the total caught was less than half of the previous year. Much of the illegal caviar continued to come to the United States.
Just as this nation was becoming the biggest consumer of caviar, American environmental groups began complaining about the ineffectiveness of CITES in protecting the sturgeon. Three major such groups — the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Bronx Zoo=s Wildlife Conservation Society, and Sea Web– joined forces in an organization called Caviar Emptor in order better to exert pressure on CITES. The particular subject of their attention was the beluga. (Caviar Emptor, 2004)
The US was importing about 80% of the world’s legally traded beluga caviar, while the number of the beluga sturgeon in the Caspian was dwindling to about 10% of earlier levels. There are probably no more than two thousand beluga left in the Caspian. The beluga is the biggest as well as the rarest of the sturgeon. The threat to the beluga=s extinction is more critical than to other species of sturgeon because the latter have larger remaining populations, are smaller in size, and need a shorter time for their roe to mature. They have a chance at faster growth and recovery than the beluga. (Nalley, 2002; Podger, 2004; Siegel, 2002, Caviar Emptor, 2004; Pala, 2001)
Prodded by Caviar Emptor, CITES agreed to consider banning trade in beluga in its fall 2000 meeting. However, Kazakhstan which has the largest population of beluga did not send a representative, and Russia made it clear that it was against the ban. Its delegates commented that caviar was not important to Russia; it was oil that was important. With about 16% of the world=s oil reserve, the Caspian is indeed a great source of badly needed revenue for Russia, just as the spills from the exploitation of its oil is a serious source of potential environmental disaster for the sturgeon. Of the three nations where the beluga still existed, only one, Iran, was willing to participate in the CITES efforts to save it. Consequently, the 2000 meeting failed to accomplish much; it merely asked the Caspian states to reduce the size of their sturgeon catch. All but Iran refused, maintaining that the existing export quotas were sufficient safeguards. (Saffron 2002a, 236, 239; Sciolino 1998; Cousteau Foundation, 1998; Weiner and Simon, 1998)
Those other four Caspian States had reduced their combined export quotas on Caspian sturgeon by 50% since 1998. This reduction, however, did not substantially diminish actual fishing. Two factors gave the poachers incentive to continue their illegal fishing beyond the quota. The domestic market for caviar, especially large in Russia, was not restricted by the quota on international trade and, secondly, the export quota was circumvented by corrupt practices. To enforce the quota, the caviar for export was required to have an official certificate, with its individual DNA, issued by the country of origin. This certificate would serve as the caviar=s identity card. Smugglers used other countries, particularly Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, as re-exporters of caviar of dubious origin with forged documents. In 2000, an estimated 50% of Russian caviar in the United States had entered illegally, through such means. (Ben Shaul, 2001; McCaffery, 2000; Kirby, 2001) In Europe the proportion was even greater as the illegal Russian caviar arrived by land; it was easier to intercept the contraband at airports in the case of air transportation, used for the United States.
In 2001 CITES responded to the high levels of poaching and illegal trade by halting caviar trade by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan, demanding that they conduct a survey of stocks and start to develop a common management plan. Iran was not subject to this ban because most of its catch were of a species that spent its entire life along the Iranian coastline. It voluntarily joined the regional effort, however, in line with the 1992 agreement of all Caspian states to cooperate in environmental management of that Sea. (Pala, 2001; Caspian Environment Programme, 2001.) The ban was lifted when the Caspian states reported agreement on a plan toward CITES objectives.
Coordinated efforts by all Caspian States, including Iran, became a requirement in the November 2002 CITES resolution which called on them to develop conservation management
plans for their shared stocks and ensure that all catch and export quotas were based on those plans and on recent stock assessments. CITES announced that it would not grant any country annual quotas unless it was satisfied that all Caspian States had complied fully with the requirements of the resolution. (Pala and Fabricant, 2004; CITES)
CITES withheld quotas for 2004 until October 8, 2004. It waited until the five Caspian States reached agreement on a plan for managing sturgeon stocks and the caviar trade. The plan reduced their caviar export quotas significantly. Their combined 2004 export quota for caviar from beluga is 50% of the 2003 level. The quota for stellate sturgeon has been reduced by 40% compared to 2003. The levels of caviar from Russian and Persian sturgeon have been cut by 10%. (CITES)
These reductions satisfied the U.S. government, which earlier in the year had agreed to list the beluga sturgeon as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act. It now decided against halting imports of beluga caviar as long as that trade was consistent with international regulations. The American environmentalists, however, declared that the controls were inadequate. For them the proper course is to ban caviar from wild sturgeon and replace it with the caviar from farmed sturgeon. As a co-founder of Caviar Emptor put it, AIt=s absolutely in bad taste to eat the eggs of a fish that is in such dire straits, especially when there are alternatives, such as the environmentally friendly American (farmed) caviars.@ (Caviar Emptor, 2004; No Ban on Beluga Caviar )
Domesticating the Beast
The Russians developed the process of fertilizing sturgeon eggs in the 1860s, but so long as the fish was plentiful in the seas there was no need to farm it. In the 1970s the Russians helped the French to farm Siberian sturgeon near Bordeaux. This fish was different from the virtually extinct native French variety. By successfully raising it, the Caviar d=Aguitaine farm attracted world wide attention. A decade later, sturgeon farming began in the United States.
Making an exception to the ban on commercial Sturgeon fishing, beginning in 1980 California allowed a dozen applicants to catch up to twenty white sturgeon annually from the Sacramento River for their fish farms. Because this sturgeon lived most of its life in the sea, raising it in captivity posed new challenges which were eventually met with the help of aquaculture experts from the University of California in Davis. Thousands of their offspring now swim in tanks in several farms near Sacramento. The rice paddies surrounding the largest such farm, in Elverta, evoke the landscape of Iran’s caviar center at the Caspian, Bandar Anzali. Sturgeon farming, however, has not been profitable in this country. Although breeding and a better diet have greatly reduced the maturation period, it still takes a decade for this sturgeon to produce caviar. (Struffennegger 2005) For American investors that is too long. In 1995, the Elverta farm was sold to a Norwegian company, Stolt . The California white sturgeon caviar is now marketed under the new owners= brand name, Sterling. (Saffron 20022: p 220-222, 225, 230, 232-33; United Press International, 2000; Engstrom)
It is possible to establish a sturgeon farm anywhere in the world. American caviar is now being produced not just in California but also in the farms of Georgia and Missouri. (Nalley, 2002) Even in the Southern Hemisphere which never had any native sturgeon, there are now sturgeon farms. Starting in the 1990s, the Russian hatcheries, in need of money, have supplied fertilized sturgeon eggs to fish farms in Uruguay, Sri Lanka, Hawaii, and Australia. There are obviously not enough wild sturgeon to supply the global demand for caviar; domestication through farming might be the only solution.
The Choice of the Swells
Farmed caviar has won praises. To some critics the American Sterling tastes much like osetra. In Paris, Caviar d’Aquitaine has become chic. (Sciolino 2003) Still, there are many skeptics. AI don=t think we can yet compare them with the real thing,@ says one restaurateur. (Siegel, 2002) Alongside their mostly Iranian and Russian caviar, the Petrossians sell a smaller quantity of farmed French and American caviar which they deem only Anot bad;@ (Saffron, 2002a: 226) they disdain farmed caviar from other countries. The complaint about farmed caviar is that they all taste the same. That sweet water taste, earthy, dirty, or muddy, is considered a poor flavor compared with the Caspian caviar. (Boeckmann and Rebeiz-Nielsen, 1995: 19; Saffron, 2002a: 226; Sciolino, 2003; Hardman, 2003 )
We have four basic taste buds, to sense salt, sweet, sour, and bitter. Researchers have recently discovered one more, umami, which enables us to taste savory flavors. Eating good caviar is called the quintessential umami experience. (Hardman, 2003) The flavor of Russian caviar is enhanced by the addition of borax in processing it; the eggs are thus sweetened a little as favored, especially, by European consumers. (Boeckmann and Rebeiz-Nielsen, 1995: 8) The Federal Drug Administration does not allow American caviar producers to use borax, although it permits the import of Russian caviar. This unfair advantage is not shared by the Iranian caviar which is not processed with borax. The right amount of calibrated salt to be added in the processing, however, is better predictable for the wild sturgeon of the Iranian caviar than for the farmed sturgeons which are processed with an unvaried amount. (Struffennegger 2005)
To the aficionados the Caspian caviar is not merely about taste. It is several sensual experiences combined. It is about texture, the way it feels in the mouth, the way it pops in a little explosion and releases a flavor of the ocean and salt. (Siegel, 2003; Wells, 2003; Brand, 2002) In the winter of 2001, the American farmed caviar Sterling won in an informal blind tasting organized by the Wall Street Journal. The samples included a “fancy” Russian caviar which, admittedly, suffered from “a long trip.” (Passy 2001) The news created some excitement, but it did not shake the loyalists. (Saffron, 2002a: 226) To them, caviar Adefinitely is not food. It’s a unique product representing many things – an experience, a handiwork, a specialty, a dream perhaps.” (Avakian, 1992) ] As another veteran caviar dealer rhapsodized, “Really it’s a sexual product. It’s mysterious and exclusive…. The mystery may be in people’s minds…. No other foodstuff commands such awe and respect. Elusive and incomparable, it is quite simply in a league of its own…. Caviar… offers an orgy of sensual pleasures.@ (Rice, 1998)
The continuing huge price difference between Sterling and Caspian caviar proves that the connoisseurs really want the latter. (Associated Press Newswires, 2000; Nalley, 2002) AThe lower-priced farmed caviar can be used to fill an omelet, to top a deviled egg, to spark Thousand Island dressing or to top a baked potato mashed with sour cream. But, of course, the best caviar can and should stand on its own; the ritual of topping it with chopped egg, onion and other garnishes stems from camouflaging a mediocre product.@ (Robins, 1994) With the pricey good Caspian caviar, the best chefs offer only the simple contrast of toasted white bread, or blinis. (Boeckmann and Rebeiz-Nielsen, 1995:27; Wells, 2003)
In the public mind, the costliness of this exclusive favorite of the ASwells@ only enhances caviar=s reputation as a snobbery enabler. AThe question is how open-minded we can be when Caspian caviar has cornered the market on fish-egg mystique. Your taste buds might confuse paddlefish roe from the limestone springs of Kentucky for fine sevruga, but how long will it take before your romantic prejudices allow your brain to accept the information? To attain true gourmet snobbism, a food must be rare (beluga) …. In the English-speaking world it also helps a lot if the French liked it first.@ (Nalley) Neither is the rest of the world immune to such appeal. The Swiss, like the French, are among the biggest consumers of caviar. AThe Swiss because they think they should and the French because they love it,@ observe two British food writers, in their rather cheeky tongues. (Boeckmann and Rebeiz-Nielsen, 1995: 50)
To another commentator, AThis is what caviar does: it massages the ego, makes you feel like a big shot, and sends you off on a high of hubristic hot air.@ (Bennet, 2003) The cosmetic companies have not lost sight of this spectacle. They have used caviar as a beauty product, for a nourishing face mask, a solution to condition dry bleached hair, and a rejuvenating cream for eyes and throats. In what may be the latest trend, Chicago=s Four Season hotel has begun offering a caviar facial treatment at its spa. (Strauss, 2003; Boeckmann and Rebeiz-Nielsen, 1995: 10-14)
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The article entitled Caviar: Its Allure, Provenance, and Destiny was published on the Website of Cultural Savvy in 2005.