This image and text is courtesy of Caviar House & Prunier and the chairman Peter G Rebeiz and his 3-part documentary ‘Taste of Caviar’.
Part 1 of 3. The Tsar’s Caviar
Click here for Part 2 of 3. Uncle Lenin’s Beluga
Caviar - some might look upon it as just food, but for centuries others have been trying to analyze its magic and there are those who refuse to live without it.
We do not feast on caviar to dissuade our hunger; we consume it to be transported into another dimension - a world of the finer traditions and an experience of intense moments. Caviar is a passionate love affair with life, culture and prominence. It is a dinner table’s poetry, an elixir of love and the creator of romance.
For hundreds of years caviar was protected by the tsars of Russia and shahs of Iran. It aroused just about everyone in its presence. How did this enchantment come about? What made these seemingly simple fish eggs become the symbol of affluence, a certificate of sophistication and the undisputed king of food for nearly 4 centuries?
Although we know little about the consumption of sturgeon and caviar before the days of imperial Russia’s abundant harvest of the great Volga River, caviar is mentioned in the text by Herodote dating from the 5ht century BC. It is praised by the deities Sopratos and Pathos as a sophisticated meal.
Later on it seems that in the imperial city of Constantinople, middle-ages Europe’s largest city during the Byzantine Empire, sturgeon and caviar were considered out of the ordinary entities that inspired the poets and scholars of the day. Some even claim that the word ‘caviar’ originated from the Turkish ‘khaviare’ - literally - “cake of power”.
In Russia the ancient Orthodox Church religion prescribed lengthy fast periods during which both meat and dairy products were forbidden. In 1280 the head of the orthodox clergy had stated that during fasting one should only consume insipid food like salted granular caviar. This triggered a considerable increase in sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea but would not cease for the next 700 years.
Caviar, which is those days had the price tag similar to butter, became popular with Russians from all social ranks and backgrounds
Peter I, Russia’s visionary tsar, who became known as Peter the Great, took Russia out of the middle ages and into modern prosperity. In 1695 he created the first imperial office for the exclusive harvest and exports of caviar. All caviar commerce was to be under the exclusive authority of the tsar.
Russian caviar had received its first letter of noblesse and the sturgeon had become and imperial fish. As the ultimate token of respect to the majestic sturgeon - the tsar ordered all church bells silent along the Volga River during caviar harvesting.
In the early 18th century empress Katherine I proclaimed new regulations for the commerce of caviar - caviar exports had to be satisfied first of all before domestic market requirements could be fulfilled.
These regulations set up in the first quarter of the 18th century stayed firmly in force for 200 years. En lieu of the special services rendered to the Russian court, Empress Katherine II - Katherine the Great - granted a 10 year tax free license for unlimited harvest in the Caspian Sea to a Greek sea captain by the name of Yoannis Vavarkis. Vavarkis became the first person to create a full scale caviar trading business.
With Vavarkis’ flourishing new industry the small city of Astrakhan became a buzzing community. Kazak fisherman taught the Greek captain that by using lime tree wood from the Caucasus Mountains impermeable staves will be created which in return could ensure longer shelf life for the already heavily salted products.
The processed caviar would be shipped up the Volga River to Volgograd and then hauled over land to the Don River which would finally unite with the Black sea. There, the larger merchant ships were waiting to continue the noble produce’s voyage to the tables of the privileged and the 18tyh century epicureans.
The most important advance in quality came with the modern steamboats of 1856. On board they were able to manufacture their own ice, thus enabling the smoother-tasting, lightly salted granular caviar to enter the market place as an alternative to the stronger-tasting traditional caviar. The new slightly salted caviar was known as Malossol caviar.
The imperial court of Tsar Nicholas II was known throughout the world as the ultimate in taste, sophistication and opulence. As a loving family man the tsar had gained respect throughout the world, even though his ability to rule across his large empire had been questioned many times.
By far the wealthiest monarch in the world the tsar’s palaces with their vast number of rooms of gold - over a 100 - in the winter palace alone would be host to state dinners with the finest Russian caviar provided
By the Caspian fishermen who paid their taxes to the tsar in caviar. It was considered the ultimate delicacy and the absolute highlight of the dinner. The Russian imperial court was the ultimate reference in savoir vivre.
Tsar Nicholas II was still ruling in 1917 seemingly unaware of the serious threat of the immense new power Vladimir Iljic Lenin that was to lead to the total demise of Romanov dynasty. Despite the seismic change to Russia and the world brought about the Russian revolution of 1917 the mythical status of Russian caviar was soon to rise even further.
In the wake of the revolution one event was to put a lasting seal on the other worldly aura that was surrounding
Caspian Sea caviar for the large part of the 20th century - the Bolsheviks’ brutal murder of Tsar Nicholas and his family on July the 16th in the Ipatjev house basement in Yekaterinburg.
Already the massive changes the traumatised world had experienced through the 1st world war had rendered the relatively recent past a dream-like romantic magic, a fantasy age of indulgent opulence had probably disappeared forever.
Nowhere had the indulgence been more dramatically shattered than in the new union of socialist soviet republics and yet, as the world was about to presume the death of the traditional Russian caviar, it survived like a miraculous living organism of its past. Amid the aftershock of the killing the royal family caviar became the perceived mode of contact to the vanished dream world of the imperial Russian palaces.
The brutal murder of the Romanov family created an unprecedented demand on Russian Caviar all over the world. First of all by Russians who had fled their home country during the Bolshevik uproar and who perceived Russian caviar as part of their Imperial heritage and identification.
But equally by prominent citizens of the world who desired a taste of the new gone but most prestigious court in the world. Not to mention the legacy of the most famous tsar in Russian history.