Caviar: The Cake of Power
Chef Clyde Serda | Chef's Blade
Caviar is the salted roe of certain fish species, most often sturgeon, a class of fish, which dates back to the prehistoric age. Lacking scales, sturgeon has armor type plates and does has a cartilaginous skeleton, similar to a shark. Persians were the first to each caviar, which they called Chav-jar, which loosely translates to Cake of Power. They also believed that if eaten regularly, it would improve their stamina. Most notable, the Russian Czar Nicolas II taxed the Cossack sturgeon fishermen 11 tons of their top grade caviar per year.True Caviar only comes from several species of sturgeon, which are found in the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake. By law, in the United States and France, any product simply referred to as caviar must be sturgeon eggs. The Caspian is surrounded by Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan and is fed by the Volga River; about 80 to 90 percent of the world’s sturgeon live in this lake. For most of the 20th Century, the former Soviet Union supplied the world with their caviar. The Soviets learned that they could control the price of caviar and increase profits by limiting the availability of it. Before World War I, the price of a kilo (2.2 pounds) of caviar was little more than a loaf of bread. Now, it can go for as much as $100 per ounce!
Because of over fishing, pollution, and the damming of the Volga River (even with fish chutes), coupled with poaching of the sturgeon and catching of juvenile sturgeon, sturgeon is on the endangered species list. In addition, sturgeons do not become sexually mature until the age of 15 to 25 years, and females reproduce only once every three to four years. Sturgeon, however, are being farmed and millions of hatchery fry are released each year in hopes to stabilize the population through fish management.
Russians farm caviar by catching sturgeons in large nets and mechanically pulling them to shore. A normal sized adult female is about 880 pounds and will yield about 15 percent of her weight in roe. When they are in the shallows, the sturgeon are lifted up from the water and hit on the head with a club stunning them. They are then taken to the processing room where they are stunned again, and their bellies slit open so that the whole egg or roe sack can be removed before the fish dies. In comparison, in Iran, the fish is killed first and then the sacks are removed. In addition, some commercial fish farms are experimenting with removing roe from sturgeon through surgery so that the females can live and continue to reproduce.
Once the egg sack is freed from the fish, it is placed over a large wire grate and gently passed back and forth in order to separate or Asieve the eggs by size. The size may vary according to the age of the fish. The eggs are collected and rinsed with fresh water to remove any debris or remaining sack.