Historically, it was commonly believed that the czars and czarinas of Russia made caviar consumption famous, but does this prized delicacy have much earlier origins?
By: Ringo Bones
An overwhelming number of books about the history of caviar consumption usually begin with the czars and czarinas of Russia – in the 19th Century. While there are no surviving / credible historical documents on whether the Romanovs – believed to be of German or Prussian-Lithuanian Stock – already started the caviar consumption craze when they first came to Russia in the late 13th Century.
The earliest documentation on the origins of caviar has always been shrouded in history, although references to caviar in literature and art date back almost as far as the 400 million-year-old history of the sturgeon itself. It has been suggested that by 2,400 BC, ancient coast-hugging Egyptians and Phoenicians had learned to salt and pickle fish eggs to make them last through war, famine or long sea-crossing voyages. Facts supporting that the ancient Egyptians knew about caviar can be seen at the bas-reliefs at Necropolis near the Sakkara Pyramids that portray fisherman catching fish and removing their eggs.
The ancient Greeks – like the ancient Egyptians centuries before - were no strangers to caviar. According to some of the more esoteric writings of Aristotle, lavish Greek banquets usually end with a brass horn section fanfare announcing the arrival of heaping platters of caviar garnished with flowers. Unfortunately, the story of Greek caviar consumption must be reconstructed – not from credible historic documentation itself – but from philosophical and theoretical sources. Hence making Aristotle’s account of caviar consumption in ancient Greece rather fragmentary.
On caviar’s Oriental origins, some scholars’ claim that it was the Turkish who first coined the word “khavyar” from which the English term caviar originates. While others suggest that the term caviar has a Persian origin – “chav-jar” – which translates loosely as “cake of power” or “piece of power” due to the Persians’ widespread belief in the curative and strength-giving properties of caviar. The first written record of the word “khavyar” dates back to the 1240s from the writings of Batu Khan - Genghis Khan’s grandson - long before the word first appeared in English print in 1591.
Before being well documented in Europe, caviar consumption probably started there during the Middle Ages. Although not known for the qualitative aspect of their culinary tastes, Medieval English society considers sturgeon-sourced caviar as haute cuisine. King Edward II proclaimed the sturgeon as a “royal fish” and made a decree that all sturgeon caught in England belonged to the imperial treasury and must be surrendered to the monarch or gentry.
During the Middle Ages, many countries’ sovereigns had claimed exclusive sturgeon and caviar rights. In Russia, China, Denmark, and France, as well as England, most prevailing laws states that: “fishermen had to offer the catch to the sovereign”, often for fixed rewards. While in Russia and Hungary, the sections of rivers considered suitable for fishing the great sturgeon – the beluga, as we know it – were subject to special royal grants. Later on, the Francophone Larousse Gastronomique Cites la Dictionnaire du Commerce mentioned the dish as well in 1741.
Before consuming beluga caviar become a symbol of the Western capitalist high life, only the Russian czars and czarinas were known with enough documentary certainty as the earliest connoisseurs of beluga caviar. As the main conniseurs of caviar in Russia, the czars levied a caviar tax on the sturgeon fishermen. It is said that fisherman subjects of Nicholas II gave him 11 tons of the finest caviar annually as tribute before he was dethroned during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The type of caviar Nicholas II so enjoyed – the small golden eggs of the sterlet sturgeon – were so popular with Russian nobility that the species are now considered “commercially extinct” today.