Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future…

Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future…

by Inga Saffron

Having recently finished Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy, I am left with a peculiar sense that my knowledge of caviar is vastly out of proportion with my experience of it. This feeling is heightened by the fact that I have only eaten true caviar twice in my life (both times in one delightful weekend), but I have now consumed 240 detailed pages that discuss its place in food history. I can truthfully say that I know more about the roe of the sturgeon than I do about hundreds of foods with which I’m more intimately and empirically familiar.

Intricate details about the history and trade of caviar fill my head in much the same way that roe fills the belly of the female sturgeon (referred to as a “cow” in the industry): the name of the man who was granted a special fishing permit by Catherine the Great, which allowed him to revolutionize the business of exporting caviar (Varvarkis); the temperature that is optimal for the storage of caviar (twenty-six degrees Fahrenheit); and Pablo Picasso’s preference for one type of caviar over all others (sevruga).

Sharing these interesting details is not the point of the text, however. They crop up as a side effect of relating caviar’s complex global history – a story that has been shaped by war, government regulations, culinary lust, and financial greed. But the driving force behind the book is simple indeed: The sturgeon is heading for extinction, and the passion for caviar is driving it there. As a caviar lover herself, author Inga Saffron understands what compels people to acquire and consume this salty, slippery substance that inspires some and disgusts others. Her personal investment in the fate of the delicacy adds a sense of urgency to her writing.

The problem with the way that Russian caviar is produced is born from the collusion of desire and desperation. When caviar first became a product sought after by the masses, there were millions of sturgeon in the Volga and the Caspian Sea. The water teemed with so many fish that nobody believed a shortage could ever be possible, and no safeguards were put in place to ensure that the sturgeon population would be sustained. By the time the communists came to power, however, it was clear that the sturgeon population had diminished significantly.

The Soviet government tightly controlled the fishing of sturgeon and the sale of caviar, and with these strictures in place, the fish population began to bounce back; but when the government fell in 1991, caviar production became a free-for-all. Impoverished Russians without any source of income turned to illegal sturgeon fishing in order to feed their families, as consumers in the United States and Europe continued to devour more caviar than ever before. Even as scientists the world over convinced CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to regulate the sale of caviar, smugglers and poachers devised creative ways to circumvent the rules.

The only long-term avenue remaining for producers of caviar seems to be the business of farmed sturgeon, and the book closes with a discussion of the hopes and challenges of this new industry. Dams, pollution, and overfishing have combined to threaten the availability of a delicacy that we crave, and we can only hope that human ingenuity can provide us with a sustainable and steady supply in the future.

Review by Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne is a freelance food writer from Burlington, Vermont and a columnist for The Gilded Fork.  Her favorite activities include cooking with local meat, cheese, and produce, and snapping up all of the exciting culinary texts from local used-book stores before anybody else can get their hands on them.