How Europe fell for black caviar

Caviar and Louis XIV

300 years ago sturgeon was in abundance in the rivers of Europe. But Europeans treated fish meat with awe and its intestines including caviar would usually end up in a pig trough.

eggs caviar

Funnily enough there was a diplomacy hick up when Peter The Great sent Louis XIV a barrel of caviar labelled “the best”, and Louis took it as offence as he genuinely thought he was being treated like a pig.

In Russia sturgeon was popular thanks to the church because during Lent, when eating most calorie-rich food was prohibited, caviar was allowed. Therefore essentially it was the Russian Orthodox church that was driving sales of caviar in Russia.

It has got to a point when Peter The Great issued a decree prohibiting bell ringing during spawning season on the Volga river to avoid scaring the fish off.

This was happening only because during Lent caviar was pressed and consumed as bread.

But how was it produced and consumed?

Do you remember Adriano Celentano’s dance on a barrel with grapes? Caviar pressing in Russian fields amongst birches looked roughly the same. Resulting in briquets of caviar that were insanely calorific and could be kept for up to three years outside of the fridge.

Caviar and Anna Karenina

In the 19th century, European sturgeon was wiped out by the insatiable appetites of local residents which provided an opportunity for Russian merchants. Having realised that there was no sturgeon left in Europe, without thinking twice Russian merchants started bringing the fish with them.

However, how could they keep it fresh? Dry briquets did not tickle the fancy of the merchants who were used to luxury. But if there is demand, there is a supply and the more eccentric the demand, the more attractive the supply.

That is why Russian engineers came up with the idea of an aquarium carriage that was equipped with an oxygen tank. This allowed customers to take their seats in a premier class carriage, crack open a bottle of champagne, order some live music and get their caviar delivered straight to the table right from the fish that was travelling in the merchant’s own carriage.

osetra

This process was obviously rather complex but there is no doubt that sturgeon was transported across Europe in an aquarium carriage. It is just the pure luck that the train that Anna Karenina was killed by did not have an aquarium carriage. Otherwise the tragedy would have turned into a comedy or an erotic thriller! Just imagine for a second that Keira Knightley is lying on the train track and her face is covered wth caviar…

Caviar and troubled childhood

‘It was then that Europe finally acknowledged the taste of caviar!’ co-owner of Caviar company Kasperskian Konstantin Sidorov draws a conclusion.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and Konstantin Sidorov / Питер Брабек-Летман и Константин Сидоров
Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and Konstantin Sidorov / Питер Брабек-Летман и Константин Сидоров

Previously Konstantin has been a co-owner of INLINE Technologies Group, one of the largest IT companies in Russia but ever since he was a little boy he has been dreaming of caviar.

‘My foreign friends think that if I am Russian then I should have caviar in my heart. But it is not in my heart, it is up in my throat. I was frequently sick as a child and my mother would make a great effort to pull some strings and obtain black caviar in the USSR and feed it to me with a spoon.  I was so fed up with it, that I would shout at her: ‘When I grow up, I promise I will feed you with caviar every day!’ This was the most petrifying threat I could ever come up with for my mother. This is why five years ago it was time to finally keep my promise and I started production of black caviar in Switzerland. All the more so, I had already begun to like black caviar by then.’

Caviar and Switzerland

Konstantin has since then gone on to meet Lilia Rafaelovna Kopylenko, Doctor of science, chief research associate of the The Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO), who had patented a “technique for producing fresh ovulated sturgeon caviar obtained during the life cycle of the fish”. In simple terms, she has invented a technique which can be used to harvest caviar from living sturgeon and conserve it without adding any chemicals except for salt.

‘We have signed a licence agreement with her for the exclusive rights across all Europe,’ Konstantin explains. ‘We have chosen Switzerland to be the location of our production site. There are four reasons for this:

1) Switzerland is a developed and transparent country where entrepreneurs are welcome to do business and where goods of highest quality are extremely popular,

2) This country has a very developed legislation related to the preservation of natural resources and ethical treatment of animals,

3) The project has been supported by Chairman of the Board of Directors at Nestlé Group Peter Brabeck-Letmathe,

4) Leukerbad which is not far from where the farm is located supplies water for the “rehabilitation” of fish after labour and is one of the most environmentally friendly locations in Switzerland and a world renowned resort with natural mineral springs.

When my wife found out that after labour our fish goes to a spa pool with special water, she became jealous and said that even she had not received such treatment from me after her own labour. By the way, we could not use the “Made in Switzerland” label until we had our own baby fish in Switzerland. It has taken us five years and we have now initiated a programme for returning sturgeon to the wild fauna of this country.’

Caviar and technology

But to produce good caviar you need to take good care of fish and make a great effort to minimise the effect of the human factor. This has become possible because the Kasperskian farm is fully automated.

Every fish has its electronic chip, number and name. This is used for tracking the movements and the status of fish as well as conducting science research and selection which makes you feel like a smart competitor to mother nature.

‘Fish are just like people.’ Konstantin says. There are blonds, brunettes and red heads, everyone is different. That is why some couples produce excellent caviar and others not so much. If caviar happens to be exceptionally good, we can use it for farming fish and track the parents. If caviar is not quite exceptional enough, we can try a different set of parents. As you have already understood, we do not kill fish and they can produce caviar up to seven times in a lifetime. This is very unique, because usually caviar is harvested from young sturgeon which have no time to mature and during the process the fish gets killed  Our pool of 10,000 species features sturgeon of all ages and they all mate. This means that the caviar that we farm is very similar to the wild one.  I am proud of my Siberian sturgeon as if they were my own children!’

Chipping and automation are used to identify the maturity of fish for producing caviar and to move it to a special pool for “labour” where the temperature is the most comfortable and everything else is just right for it.

Caviar and marketing

Have you ever thought why in restaurant menus beef is always described in an array of ways stating how it was made, however caviar is only presented in two ways – either “beluga caviar” or “sturgeon caviar”.

‘We have given it some thought and decided to offer restaurants an opportunity to look after our fish,’ Konstantin says. ‘For example, private club for wine lovers 67 Pall Mall has “adopted” a sturgeon and called it Nichola Sturgeon. I think it is a pretty funny joke. Now they only buy caviar from their own fish and share the history behind it in the menu. This means that now their menu does not only say “sturgeon caviar”, but caviar with a story and a description! They have admitted that they did not expect that caviar could sell so well! And the secret is simple –  people want to try caviar from Nichola Sturgeon and then they come back because they want to have caviar with the same flavour!

I will share one more secret with you: Micheline star chefs often use caviar for presentation. They take about 10 caviar eggs and put them on the side of the plate to make it more attractive. They never buy expensive caviar for this purpose because you cannot tell the flavour anyway. That is why if you want to taste the flavour of your caviar with all of your receptor cells and not only being led by the luxury-focused parts of your brain, buy high-quality caviar!’

How to identify high-quality caviar:
black caviar

There should not be too much salt. This is due to obvious reasons. Salt is a preservative and when there is a lot of it, it affects receptor cells. Salty caviar often covers up a product that is past its sell-by date.

Usually farmers kill fish two weeks before it is due to produce caviar. This is why caviar eggs have thick skin and can be salted. Kasperskian caviar is harvested on the day of its birth which is why its skin is so thin that salt crystals can damage it even if diluted with water. That means its producers have to use a minimal amount of salt which is added to caviar applying the special Dr Kopylenko technique’.

black caviar

If it is not sharp and eggs look a bit blown out, this means that the caviar has been frozen. And frozen caviar is dead caviar – just like a cold heart. Plus the flavour is gone.

The product should not contain anything other than caviar and salt.

‘To increase shell life of caviar the majority of farmers add borax or E285. These are also used for treating horse hoofs. This additive also negatively affects sex drive. That is why those of you who are planning to seduce a woman of your dreams with caviar and champagne, should be exceptionally careful. There is probably a high chance that you will seduce that woman, but will you impress her having eaten this caviar? It is a very big question. So be sure to check the label for content.’

black caviar

Low-quality caviar smells of seaweed and raw fish.

‘Just like pregnant women, pregnant fish crave for all sorts of sins, be it salty or sweet. And if a pregnant fish lives in a pond, especially with still water, it eats the most disgusting seaweed it can find. At Kasperskian we send our pregnant fish to the special pool where they get fed with vitamin-enriched food that complies with the dietary requirements of the pregnant fish. This is why our caviar does not smell and you can enjoy the flavour of caviar itself and not that of seaweed and fish.’

black caviar

Caviar eggs should be different!

‘Caviar is a live product. That is why its eggs cannot be all the same. Just like children, all eggs are different! We make every effort to ensure that they are the same in size and are opalescent but when caviar has different shades it is a sign of high quality!

For more info: www.kasperskian.com



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