It's not a widely known fact, but caviar's origins are found with the Persians, who are believed to be the first people to cure sturgeon roe sometime around the 4th century. "When they began to use it – it was medicinal. Warriors were fed before battle to increase stamina," says Simon Johnson's local caviar expert and grader, Lisa Downs. This is, in part, thanks to caviar's impressive nutrition. It's loaded with vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids and it's high in protein. "It really could be classed as a superfood," says Downs.
While roe can be obtained from any female fish, it's only the mighty female sturgeon – who has been swimming our oceans since the early Jurassic era – that delivers caviar. "True caviar is only from the sturgeon. As a species they date back more than 250 million years, pre-dating dinosaurs," explains Downs.
Eventually Russia entered the world of caviar in the 12th century, when they started catching sturgeon for meat. At that stage, caviar was simply a waste by-product and relegated to animal feed. From the 14th century, the Russian Orthodox church sanctioned eating roe on feast days and it soon became popular with the masses. It was Tsar Nicholas II that cast caviar in a new luxurious light, according to Downs. During his reign, it's documented that he ordered fishermen from the Black Sea and Caspian Sea to pay their taxes in caviar, leading the country's elite to develop a taste for the briny, black roe. In 1917 the Russian revolution happened and a lot of people exiled, taking their love of caviar across Europe," says Downs. From France – the culinary capital of the world at the time – it spread across Europe. This coincided with a time that Champagne production was burgeoning as well. "And this is why caviar is often consumed with Champagne – through history not by design."
These days, it isn't the monarchy, churches or tsars that dictate the high price of caviar. Rather, it is driven by supply and demand. In 2008, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned commercial and recreational fishing of sturgeon. As a result, today all sturgeon are farmed. "Every tin of legal caviar is required to have a CITES code, with the species, country of origin, the year and the farm from which it was produced," says Downs.
With sturgeon taking an average of eight to 13 years before they are ready to produce caviar, it's no short-term hustle. The farming of sturgeon happens right across the world, with much of the caviar we eat here in Australia coming from Italy, Iran and China.
"People get confused when they read the label and see Russia or Siberia – it's not about the country of origin, but rather the species and the style of caviar," says Downs. This means you can have Russian sturgeon (the species) that is farmed in Italy; much like you can have Berkshire pork that is raised in Australia. Russian sturgeon are a hardy species that will grow almost anywhere and take a shorter time to mature, versus the sought-after beluga sturgeon, which originate from the Caspian Sea and take more than 20 years to reach maturity.
Why the "caviar bump"?
"It's an experience – and it's science," explains Downs. Caviar is high in fat, which is why it's kept cold but never frozen, to keep fats and lipids contained within the membrane. When we taste caviar – like cheese – it's important to warm the fat. "You want an ambient temperature to get the full flavour," says Downs. By placing caviar on the back of your hand, it acts as a temperature gauge. When you can no longer feel the caviar bump, it's reached the same temperature as your hand, and is ready to eat. "A sip of vodka before eating caviar helps prime your palate and activate your tastebuds," says Downs.
What to look for:
Appearance: Each egg should possess a clean, cylindrical shape, with a glossy exterior.
Smell: Clean and salty – no other offensive smells – and not fishy.
Taste: An initial hit of salt, then as it moves and melts, you should taste butter and cream, and also umami. Texturally, don't expect it to pop on your tongue. Instead, it should melt like butter. Ideally you're after fresh caviar which has been cured in salt, but not pasteurised. "A really fine caviar is never pasteurised, with no chemical preservers," says Downs. The salt interacts with the fat to develop the flavour. Caviar when it is first extracted doesn't have much flavour – instead it's once it has been brined and matured that it develops its signature salty, moreish taste.
Beluga: The huso huso sturgeon from which it's harvested takes an average of 20 years before it produces eggs, making this one of the most sought-after caviars. The eggs are light grey to black in colour and sport an eye-like ring or spot. The soft-shelled caviar is delicate and creamy.
Oscietra: Varying in colour from golden yellow to brown black, this caviar has a layered, nuanced flavour profile often described as buttery and nutty.
Sevruga: Despite not being as readily available as it once was, sevruga is the third most in-demand caviar variety. Taken from the smallest species of sturgeon, this soft-shelled caviar is typically a gun-metal grey to green, and is small in its diameter with a saline-forward taste.