Samui Wining & Dining
King’s Roe

The most royal egg of all – Caviar

 

17Caviar as a delicacy is hardly a new phenomenon. It dates back to ancient times and has been prized in almost every culture across the globe. The sturgeon, the only fish whose roe may be classified as caviar, is a prehistoric fish that has been around for 250 million years, surviving since the time of, and outlasting, the dinosaurs.

 

Fossil remains dating from that time have been found on the Baltic coast and elsewhere. Sturgeon are bottom-dwellers, with sensitive barbells and pointed snouts, scale-less except for five rows of large, pointed, plate-like appendages 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. They are anadromous, living in saltwater but returning 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 over-fishing. They can live to be over 100 years-old and can grow to weigh over 3,000 pounds, though this is very rare.

 

This amazing fish has more chromosomes than man, and is much 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 he describes, “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 comes from the Persian word chav-jar which translates loosely as ‘cake of power’ or ‘piece of power’. 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 Genghis Khan), whilst 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. 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.

 

Of the 24 species of sturgeon existing worldwide today, only 3 types supply caviar: the beluga, the oscetra, and the sevruga. Beluga, a strong, nomadic fish, is the largest of the sturgeon family, averaging 4 metres in length and weighing over 1000kg. It’s very rare and less than 120 fish are caught annually. Roe in a beluga sturgeon can equal 15% of its body weight, and varies in colour from light grey to dark grey. As the largest of the three types, beluga roe has fine, delicate skin, considerable texture, and a visible ‘eye’ or target in the middle of each egg.

 

Oscetra, which is less rare than the beluga, is a medium-sized sturgeon measuring 2 metres in length and weighing up to 200kg. It uses its elongated snout to vacuum plants and small sea-life up from the sea-bed. Their roe ranges in colour from dark brown to grey and it’s often shaded with gold. They are said to have a unique taste, similar to hazelnuts. Sevruga is the smallest of the sturgeon family, being only 1.5m long and weighing up to 25kg, with a small, upward-pointing snout and distinct, diamond-shaped exoskelatal plates. Its roes have a fine surface and their colour ranges from light to dark grey. They are small and are popular for their characteristic taste and smell. As the least rare of the three types of sturgeon, and the least expensive of the three major types of caviar, the sevruga is also the most popular variety.

 

On a side note, the sterlet is worth mentioning, as this variety of sturgeon was once extremely popular with the Czars of Russia, and its small-grained golden caviar was considered the finest available. However, this variety of fish is now very close to extinction, and the sterlet sturgeon and sterlet caviar are almost never seen. Caviar is not only categorized by the fish species from which it is obtained, but is also graded on the size, colour, fragrance, flavour, uniformity, and consistency of the egg, as well as the gleam, firmness, and vulnerability of the roe-skin.

 

Other roe also have the moniker of caviar, such as the salmon caviar and the American sturgeon caviar, and are used as an inexpensive alternative. In Scandinavia, a significantly cheaper version of caviar, made from smoked cod-roe, can be bought in tubes. And caviar from burbot, vendace and whitefish are consumed in Finland in its natural form as a substitute. Caviar is also full of proteins, vitamins and is low in calories. It can be used for beauty treatments, such as facials, and oil extracted from caviar can be used to heal burns. Caviar also contains acetylcholine, which improves alcohol resistance. Perhaps that’s the main reason why Russians ate a lot of caviar whilst drinking vodka!

 

As an expensive delicacy, it’s not every day that most people have the opportunity to savour the delightful flavours of caviar. A few of the very best restaurants on the island will include some caviar with one or two of their dishes. Blinis with smoked salmon and caviar has long been a favourite hors d’oeuvre. Sample it with some Champagne or alongside a neat chilled vodka. Even if caviar isn’t to your liking, if you down enough neat vodka, pretty much anything will taste great!

 

Johnny Paterson

 


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