The celebrity of caviar is not a new phenomenon. This dish goes back to the ancient times and has been highly prized in many cultures around the earth. The sturgeon, the fish whose roe alone under FDA rulings may be classified as caviar, is a prehistoric fish that has been around for over 250 million years, surviving since the time of, and outlasting, the dinosaurs.“ There are fossil remains dating from that time that have been found on the Baltic coast and elsewhere.” The sturgeon are bottom-dwellers, with sensitive barbells and pointed snouts, “scaleless except for five rows of large, pointed, platelike scales running along the top and sides of the body. Their exoskeleton is part bone and part cartilage, placing them midway between sharks and bony fish.” Sturgeon are anadromous fish, meaning that they live in saltwater but return to freshwater to spawn. Twenty-four major species of sturgeon still exist, living mainly in the Caspian Sea, although their numbers have been negatively affected by pollution and intense over-fishing. Sturgeon can live longer than most Americans and can be over 100 years old and can grow to weigh over 3,000 pounds. This wonderful and amazing fish has more chromosomes than man, and is more adaptable to its environment.
References to caviar in literature and art date back almost as far as the sturgeon itself. It has been suggested that by 2400 B.C. ancient coastal Egyptians and Phoenicians had learned to salt and pickle fish eggs to make them last through war, famine or trips at sea. Bas-reliefs at the Necropolis near the Sakkara Pyramid showing fishermen catching fish and removing their eggs support this theory.[ According to Aristotle, the ancient Greeks were no strangers to caviar either, as “lavish Greek banquets would end with trumpet fanfare announcing the arrival of heaping platters of caviar garnished with flowers.” Some claim it was the Turkish who first coined the word “khavyar” from which the English term “caviar” originates. Others suggest the term “caviar” comes from the Persian word “chav-jar” which translates loosely to “cake of power” or “piece of power.” The Persians considered caviar to be a medicine for a multitude of illnesses, and would eat it in stick form to give them energy and stamina. In the 1240s the first written record of the word “khavyar” was found in the writings of Batu Khan (grandson of Ghengis Khan), while the word first appeared in English print in 1591.
Although not known for their culinary prowess, Medieval English society also held the caviar-producing sturgeon in the greatest respect. King Edward II proclaimed the sturgeon to be a “royal fish” and decreed that all sturgeon caught in England belonged to the imperial treasury and must be given to the monarch or the gentry. In fact, by the middle ages many countries’ sovereigns had claimed the rights to sturgeon. In Russia, China, Denmark, and France, as well as in England, “fishermen had to offer the catch to the sovereign, often for fixed rewards. In Russia and Hungary, the sections of rivers considered suitable for fishing the great sturgeon (the Beluga as we know it) were the subject of special royal grants.”
Caviar was enjoyed in France as early as 1553 according to Rabelais and his work Faits et dits Heroiques du Grand Pantagruet (1553). Meanwhile, the Larousse Gastronomique cites la Dictionnaire du Commerce (1741), mentioned the dish as well: “kavia is beginning to be known in France where it is not despised at the best tables.” Of course, the Russian czars must be mentioned in any discussion of the early popularity of caviar. As the main consumers of caviar in Russia, the czars levied a caviar tax on sturgeon fishermen. It is said that Nicholas II was given 11 tons of the finest caviar each year by his fisherman subjects. The caviar Nicholas II so enjoyed, the small golden eggs of the sterlet sturgeon, were so popular with Russian nobility that the species is all but extinct today.