An experienced hand in Eastern Europe and Russia, now architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, reports extensively on a snack for the well-heeled that used to come from Russia with, if not love, then much salt. Her text surveys the art, science and lore of sturgeon roe: caviar, of course.
“Stripped of its shroud of legend and tradition,” she observes, “caviar would just be fish eggs.” As with diamonds, though, it’s scarcity that gave this ephemeral foodstuff such cachet with the upper crust. It’s surely not simply the taste. Exclusivity is why the Soviets marketed the black spawn the way DeBeers doled out their diamonds. The first necessity for true caviar, of course, is sturgeon. Coeval with the dinosaurs, it’s a sizeable fish in mortal danger of extinction. The ugly animal was once an easily available comestible for peasants around the Caspian. It became subject to a takeover by Cossacks, who purveyed the fragile food to Russian Orthodox Christians and then to the aristocracy. Eventually, the Communists catered to the capitalist trade. At last, by the end of the 20th century, caviar was a mass-market delicacy, gulped by yuppies. Meanwhile, the docile sturgeon, once a universal food, was disappearing. No longer was caviar canned in New Jersey as it was in the 19th century and no longer does the Volga yield tons of roe annually. After all, if eggs are consumed wantonly, population must inevitably fade. Poaching and over-fishing, abetted by pollution and damned rivers, is killing the fish that laid the golden (well, black) eggs. International policing using ichthyological DNA markers to find illicit product may prove even less effective than fish farming. For the moment, most good caviar comes from Iran and most bad caviar is hatched from international intrigue.
Here’s whatever is worth knowing about Romanoff and Petrossian and the remarkable history of beluga, osetra, or sevruga eggs, all in this one basket, served with much style.