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Why is Caviar so expensive? A short history of this diamond of the culinary world.

Why is Caviar so expensive? A short history of this diamond of the culinary world.

caviar on mother of pearl spoon

My first ‘real’ taste of caviar was just after our wedding in 1993. After the main event, our French family had gathered in Sydney, where my brother-in-law was living, to quietly celebrate together. 
There was a total of nine people in attendance. There was a jeroboam of Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque left over from my brother-in-law’s wedding, and unbeknown to me a 1kg tin of Iranian caviar. My father-in-law, who was a lover of fine food, had discovered where he could source some fine caviar in Brisbane and had secreted it away. 
His love of caviar had developed when the family were living in Iran (Persia back then) where wild caught Caspian Sea caviar was in such abundance that they even fed the left overs to the dog! 
We enjoyed the caviar with simple blinis and King Island Triple Cream. Such an extravagance. When my mother-in-law reprimanded him on the price, his simple answer was “You can’t put a price on memories”. 
Not only will the memory last forever for me, but it also started my love of caviar. Mainly because rather than just having a couple of grains sprinkled on top of an oyster, I was able to enjoy it by the spoonful and really appreciate a taste for it. 
caviar on pewter plate

The History of Desire 

There are a number of factors that lead to the cost of caviar, but first it is important to look back into the history of the products. 
The most acclaimed caviar came from the roe of the beluga sturgeon which was originally wild caught in the Caspian Sea. The Russians and Persians (Later Iranians) laid claim to producing the best caviar due to the special brackish qualities of the water. 
Caviar comes from sturgeon fish from the Acipenseridae family, of which there are 27 different species. Three of those species are the mainstay of the industry: huso huso for Beluga, Acipenser gueldenstaedtii for Oscietra and Acipenser stellatus for Sevruga.

Up until the 1990s, all caviar came from the Caspian Sea and the rivers leading into it. The Russian production was firmly controlled by the Ministry of Fishieries, but less so the Persian/Iranian side due to political unrest and a change of government. Added to that, the Iranian government had to reclassify sturgeon as scaled fish so that it could be handled by muslim workers. 
Following generalised good management of the industry from both countries in the 1980s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was no longer any centralised control. Sturgeon numbers were declining due to poor river management, overfishing, and pollution. Additionally, dams had been built on the Volga, Ural and Terek rivers that flow into the Caspian Sea, restricting the movements of the sturgeon. The numbers of wild sturgeon became so depleted, that in 1998 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) persuaded the Caspian countries and the Chinese to stop the sale of caviar from wild fish altogether. This is still mainly the situation today. 
In 2010, when the sturgeon population was reclassified and added to the endangered list, heavy production was halted, and Iran had to place countrywide controls on the industry. 


The long road to production 

caviar being sorted by hand

As a consequence of the decline of the wild sturgeon, farmed caviar operations were commenced in many countries. However, replicating the exact water conditions of the Caspian Sea, proved quite difficult and the results were not always ideal. 
One big factor in the cost of producing quality caviar is the length of time it takes for a sturgeon to reach maturity and produce eggs. Depending on the species it can take 16 – 18 years. The process of harvesting the eggs must be done by hand to keep the integrity of the eggs, and in the majority of cases, the fish must be killed in order to extract the eggs. There are some trials of a more humane way to harvest the eggs, but the method is generally considered not to produce the same quality. Called ‘stripping’, the fish are injected with a hormone that triggers their urge to release eggs. There is some thought that accelerating the process of the eggs being released, means they are not at ideal maturity, which affects the taste and quality. 
After the harvest, the process is still tedious, with the unsalted eggs required to be kept completely sterile during the grading and washing process so that no contaminants come in contact. This leads to higher production costs. 
Further processing of caviar to meet the malossol method (salting), requires further expertise., Aa high-quality product requires a perfect balance of maximising flavour while optimally preserving the product. Ideally 3-5% of salting preserves the roe and enhances the natural flavour. 
Throughout the whole process of production, aging and shipping, the caviar must be kept at a constant temperature. 
caviar in a tin

Setting the quality standard  

Caviar is generally graded on its egg colour, size, maturity, separation, uniformity, fragrance, lucidity, firmness, and flavour. This is done twice – before salting and after salting is completed. 

The more expensive or highest-grade caviar is still produced with the time consuming malossol methods, but there are other preserving methods that are used with cheaper caviar - pressed, semi-preserved or "salted", and pasteurized.  

In a nutshell, high-end caviar must be low-salt and consistently firm, having delicate texture with large grains that are intact and of fine colour, smell, and taste. 


The final price

There are three main things that lead to the end price of caviar: the type of fish, the precise and delicate production process, and the rarity. 

Although widespread farming has helped ensure that high quality sturgeon roes are still available and have not been completely wiped out of existence, due to the time it takes to produce a high quality product, the price remains relatively high. 


How do I know I am buying ‘real’ caviar 

When purchasing caviar, it is very important to read the label on both the front and back of the tin. It is extremely important to check that it has a CITES label, which is most likely on the back. The CITES label guarantees that the caviar is of top quality. It will tell you which country the caviar is from, the species, and the source (captive). 

cites label

With any producer, passion, know-how and substance are the keys to ensuring a great caviar experience.