We don’t miss much about the old Soviet Union. Caviar lovers, however, yearn for the Soviet’s efficient management of the caviar industry it shared with Iran. While Iran’s caviar commerce remained relatively stable over the two decades following the Soviet Union’s demise, Soviet order and predictability dissolved into chaos and confusion, eventually resulting in the elimination (for all practical purposes) of those glistening eggs from Caspian Sea beluga, osetra and sevruga sturgeon, what many consider the only true caviar. However, when one empire collapses, another (in this case several) springs up. Caviar is back. Not from the Caspian but from farms in places as far flung as California and Saudi Arabia, China and Israel. Just as important, much of it is very good.
“Today, there is zero percent of wild caviar, except for hackleback and paddlefish (American non sturgeon river fish). Everything else is farmed, “says Hossein Aimani, president of Paramount Caviar, a caviar importer and seller based in Queens, NY.
How did we get here? Even when the Soviet Union managed a good portion of Caspian caviar, overfishing, poaching and pollution were increasing problems. Things only got worse after the Soviet Union fell in 1989. Since 1998, international trade in all species of sturgeon has been regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which set caviar quotas. Current quotas for osetra and sevruga caviar are so low that these wild caviars are essentially nonexistent. In 2005, Beluga caviar, the most prized because its eggs are more opulent and much scarcer than those from osetra and sevruga sturgeon, was banned from importation into the United States after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed Beluga sturgeon as a species threatened with extinction.
Unfortunately, quotas and bans haven’t done much to improve life for Caspian sturgeon. Pollution is still a major problem, as is poaching. And there is little incentive to change things. “There is still a lot of oil drilling on or near the sea,” Aimani says. “Oil is more profitable than caviar.” Aimani figures that, at best, we’re 10 to 15 years away from seeing any significant amount of Caspian caviar.
When first introduced for general consumption a decade or so ago, farmed caviar was a tough sell. Restaurant chefs and retail customers liked the fact that it was a sustainable product but the taste just wasn’t there. Since then “the improvement in farmed caviar has been spectacular”, according to Alexandre Petrossian, whose family has been selling caviar since the 1920s. Kaluga, the other of the two Beluga sturgeon species, is being farmed, primarily in China. Kaluga caviar has been on the market for several years. Until recently, only Bulgaria has been marketing caviar from farmed sevruga sturgeon, albeit in small quantities. However, farmed sevruga sturgeon caviar from Kazakhstan is becoming available.
Most farmed caviar comes from the osetra species of sturgeon and what may be called osetra-type sturgeon. Persicus (Acipenser persicus) and Gueldenstaedtti (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii) produce what are often considered the finest farmed osetra. However, first-rate (and less expensive) caviar can come from farmed Siberian or Baerii (Acipenser baerii) sturgeon and Amur or Schrencki (Acipenser schrencki) sturgeon. White sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) is a native North American sturgeon species that is producing some fine caviar from farms in California and Italy.
As you can see, caviar is reaching levels of availability not seen in years. And at a wide range of prices. Ladies and gentlemen, get your mother-of-pearl spoons ready!