Beluga caviar originates in the belly of female beluga sturgeon, one of the oldest known fish species on the planet that now maintains a precarious existence due to recent decades of overfishing. Fish populations have fallen an estimated ninety percent since recorded levels in the 1970s. With an economic value that far outweighs its relatively small physical characteristics and unassuming appearance, caviar is an item whose collection, consumption, and commodification has given it one of great historical, cultural, and geopolitical significance.
Caviar can be harvested in a variety of methods, some of which result in the death of or unnecessary pain for the fish while another more accepted treatment calls for a small slit that causes the eggs to be released without undue stress for the sturgeon. Historically, the term “caviar” is attributed only to the roe of sturgeon from the Caspian or Black Seas, although similar species of fish have been found in other regions around the world, notably in the mid-Atlantic and Southern rivers of North America. Nonetheless, fish stocks in all areas are under extreme stress due to poorly managed catch limits and the long period of maturation that it takes sturgeon to reproduce, further elevating the price for this highly-sought after luxury good.[i]
Indeed, beluga caviar is particularly significant for its place in history as a gourmet delicacy intended for consumption by elites. The Persians are the first recorded people to have harvested the roe from sturgeon in the Caspian Sea for consumption, and it is widely documented as a feature of Greek, then Roman, feasts. By the medieval period in England the dish had attained a royal status, which was continued during the Russian Imperial period with the imposition of taxes upon its collection by Tsar Nicolas II. In the middle of the twentieth century, American taste for the treat spiked when it was used as a salty bar snack thought to encourage patrons to continue drinking. For several decades in the middle of the twentieth century, American production of caviar from the mid-Atlantic region thus dominated the world market, until overfishing decimated the native sturgeon populations and production from the Caspian region once again regained its status dominant status.[ii] Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, fishermen in the Caspian region were able to eke out meager livings by continuing to harvest the roe, and in this political void a “caviar mafia” is said to have arisen, largely driven by crime syndicates.[iii] On a global cultural and media scale, such events have even been memorialized in popular films like the James Bond “The World is Not Enough” (1999).[iv]
In this way, the consumption of caviar as an edible good has largely remained unchanged. The eggs are collected, then brined and preserved before being eaten with eggs in Russia or on toast points in countries such as the United States. However, modern technological innovations have changed this process over time into one that involves a precise methodology of temperature, timing, and ratios to achieve the distinctive taste of true beluga caviar rather than the “jelly” that sometimes results when the roe is improperly treated. Indeed, as an item of cultural capital the small tins and their precious contents have come to represent a domestic symbol of elite socioeconomic achievement for some in Russia. RT, a Russian news network, reported that Designer Andrey Logvin has turned caviar from a simple “gastronomic delight” into a symbol of Russia's post-Soviet nouveau riche, inventing the powerful slogan “Life has been a success.”[v] The phrase comes from an apparently popular joke in the 1990s about a man sleeping in a bar with his face in a plate of caviar.[vi] Such a reference demonstrates the evolving nature of the good with reference to cultural caché and the continued status for an item, with a cost per gram compared to that of gold, has contributed to its dramatic nickname.
In two recent examples, caviar has been used as an item either representative or analogous to Russian political excess under President Vladimir Putin. In July 2009, when President Obama visited Russia on a diplomatic tour, the two heads of state met over a “sumptuous” working breakfast, whose menu was shown by the RT news coverage of the event. Dining on “eggs with black caviar and sour cream” along with tea prepared in a Russian samovar, the more “informal setting” was seen as a positive contributor that helped to offset previously tense relations between the two countries.[vii] Caviar, in this sense, was portrayed as both a traditionally Russian item as well as focused on as part of a lavish menu that depicted the assumed entertaining standards of the Russian state.
However, in early 2014 at the Sochi Olympics, caviar’s symbolic status was used in a deliberately less gourmand way in favor of demonstrating the economic excesses of state spending on the road and railway from the airport to the Olympic village, the actual site of the winter competitions themselves. At an incredible $8.7 billion, the road was reportedly one of the most expensive undertakings of the Games as a whole, and became the feature of a mocking Russian Esquire article which stated that, among other high-priced items, for its total sum the road could have been instead paved entirely with a centimeter-thick coating of beluga caviar.[viii] Rather than an admiring tribute to the good as a delicacy to be consumed by elites, domestic writers instead used it as a relative comparison of the waste they saw taking place amongst the billions of dollars being spent in the most expensive Games in history.
Caviar, as a distinctive and unique item of food, has enjoyed a long and changing history in Russia as a symbol of both tradition and commodification. Controlled at various points by different empires and states – in sharing agreements that exist even today between Russia and former Soviet blocks – it has been used throughout the decades to voice representations of both domestic and global perceptions of Russia in the world. Of continued geopolitical interest are the recent attempts to create caviar farms that produce rival products to the overfished Caspian and Black Seas in places as diverse as Italy, Louisiana, and Dubai.[ix] In a continued twist on what might be considered “Russia” and quintessential “Russianness,” the increasing success of farms outside of the historical bastion of caviar producing waters brings to light the effects of global environmental, commercial, and social interests at the start of the twenty-first century in these small, precious tins of “black gold.”
[i] “Black Gold: Russian Caviar,” accessed April 1, 2014, http://russian.lingualift.com/blog/russian-caviar-roe/.
[ii] Inga Saffron, Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy, 1 edition (Broadway Books, 2002).
[iii] Antony Barnett and public affairs editor, “London Raids Expose Mafia Caviar Racket,” The Guardian, November 8, 2003, sec. UK news, http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/nov/09/ukcrime.london.
[iv] In the most relevant scene, a large Russian man named Zukovsky drowns in his own pools of caviar after helping Bond to escape.
[v] “Caviar - the History of Russia’s National Delicacy,” accessed April 1, 2014, http://rt.com/news/prime-time/caviar-history/.
[vi] The full joke is as follows: “The idea came to me from a popular 1990s joke,” the designer recalls. “A Russian nouveau riche comes to a European casino. Among those who’ve been losing he sees an old friend, asleep with his face in a huge plate of black caviar. So he comes over, “Hey, haven’t seen you for ages, how have you been?” And the guy lifts his face off the caviar plate and says, “You know, life’s been a success!”
[vii] “Obama, Putin and Black Caviar,” Dailymotion, accessed April 1, 2014, http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xw55tm_obama-putin-and-black-caviar_news.
[viii] “Russia Could’ve Paved a Cheaper Road in Sochi with Caviar,” Esquire, accessed April 1, 2014, http://www.esquire.com/blogs/news/russia-olympics-caviar-road. Link included to original article in Russian.
[ix] Angela Shah, “The Fish That Lay the Golden Eggs,” The New York Times, June 29, 2011, sec. World / Middle East, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/30/world/middleeast/30iht-M30B-UAE-CAVIAR.html.