I was in the Caucasus a few years back and frequently visited Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on the Caspian shoreline. In the chaotic post-Soviet times including ethnic wars and flatline economies, but with little electricity, you could purchase a half kilogram of unctuous caviar in grey-black at a price of 50 dollars on the market.
There was a diner in the American style which served a buffet breakfast on weekends breakfast: bacon, eggs, sausages, pancakes, sausages, as well as a large bowl of caviar that was shared at the cost of $10.
I took one kilo worth of food to London to make caviar-based sandwiches. We ate them with a smile. I recall in the half-time break during the game at Villa Park, watching Arsenal fall to Manchester United in an FA Cup semi-final replay. It was probably 1999.
In essence, I ate the final of the wild caviar. (The real deal is the black-grey roe from the sturgeon, derived from fish caught in the ocean and not cultivated in artificial lakes.) Following the collapse of the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, poaching, as well as pollution, decimated the sturgeon population within the Caspian.
In the late 1990s, during the 1990s the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species was able to start steadily imposing restricting quotas; in 2006, the convention recommended an absolute ban on commercial fishing for sturgeon in Caspian. Prices skyrocketed.
Since then, sturgeon farms have been set up across various countries, including the US, France, Bulgaria, Italy, Israel, Madagascar, and Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly, China is now the main producer of worldwide caviar. Estimates of the worth of the caviar market range between $350m and $500m.
Caviar prices have been fluctuating for years; before it was the time that the Soviet Union broke up, the cost of the asset (good quality caviar but not the best beluga) was approximately $1,000 per Kilo. At present, it’s between $3,500 and $2,500.
Although the total amount of caviar being produced today is around 350 tonnes, much less than what was gathered from the Caspian thirty years ago when it was the sole source. It was due to the Soviets having a command economy. Their monopoly over caviar exports and their desire to use hard currency meant that the price was not influenced by anything to be influenced by demand and supply. As the amount of caviar from farms keeps increasing, I wonder what keeps the price so high.
Last fall, I met Armen Petrossian over lunch at his restaurant named after him in Paris. He’s a classy gentleman fluent in English, French, and Russian. He was dressed in a bow tie and had a waxed mustache. His father and Uncle, Armenian emigres, did more than any other person to establish the mythology surrounding caviar as a food item for monarchs and emperors when they founded the first major caviar shop in Paris around 1920.
Petrossian is one of the biggest buyers and sellers of caviar worldwide. “I like to think of myself as Mr 10 percent,” he said with a laugh about another famous Armenian, Calouste Gulbenkian, who was nicknamed Mr.5 percent due to the portion that he received from the Caspian’s most valuable black resource, oil in the time he worked as a broker with those of the Nobel brothers during the Baku oil boom in the 20th century.
The table in front of me had six spoons of caviar filled with mouthfuls of three types: Laika, Lauren, and osetra. They came from three different species of sturgeon. “Your palate must adjust,” Petrossian told me in a friendly manner, inviting me to taste the bank, which is from the Siberian Sturgeon, first. It was like a jam made of fish, somewhat metallic; the flavor disappeared quickly and did not leave any memories. “Yes,” Petrossian agreed with a sigh, “smaller grains, a rather short taste, it doesn’t last.”
The larger particles of Laurens are a hybrid of two Amur sturgeons — the massive river fish Huso Mauritius and the smaller Acipenser Schrenckii. It created the squishing of resistance against my teeth. A familiar sweet and rich umami swam through my throat. The osetra offered a smoother texture but a deeper taste that evoked deep dark velvet under the lighting and something else intriguing and indefinable.
Incredibly, Petrossian explained at the time of harvest, the eggs of sturgeon “have an almost milk-like flavor, but it’s not pleasant, to say the least; it’s lactic, just similar to eating old yogurt. You then add salt, making the eggs salty.” The norm is that a tiny amount of borax is used as a mineral salt in industries, and one of the ingredients in laundry detergents (but prohibited as food additives for food in the US) is used as a preservative.
The true taste of caviar comes from maturation in the same manner as beef, wine, or cheese. It is stored in several kilo containers and rotated regularly for at minimum one month and possibly up to 18 years old. The duration Petrossian said to me while rubbing the side of his nose, “is based on human taste.”
Some feel that farmed caviar has a musky taste and can’t compete with the pure wild. Petrossian claims that sturgeon farming is an exciting new business, and the quality is increasing every day, and good caviar from a farm is almost identical to the wild varieties.
For a buyer facing a variety of sealed jars with prices ranging from PS40 for 30g up to over PS300 for a premium, it’s difficult to distinguish the quality from gummy, smooshed crud when it’s difficult to figure out the texture. It also could be more comfortable to request an opportunity to taste.
The Soviets used species beluga (the largest) sevruga, osetra, and beluga to describe their three caviar grades. However, the caviar quality is so different between fish species that I’ve always thought these labels were a bit arbitrary.
Labels these days must be able to prove the origin and species; however, lots of caviar gets shipped, repackaged, and shipped by brokers and middlemen in third and fourth countries, and invariably some are falsely classified. I asked Petrossian to help me be sure of what you’re receiving. He told me it could be: “You have to trust the brand. There is no other way.”
Caviar was always the triumph of marketing over the substance. “When you speak about caviar,” Petrossian informed me, “you sit next to the Tsar and an Iranian Shah of Iran and the elite or the jet-set. When you hear the word “caviar” you envision a man who smokes a large cigar and an expensive Rolls-Royce. Caviar signifies wealth. If you’re prosperous and have money to spend, you can buy caviar.”
However, caviar was becoming prohibitively expensive even though it was an expensive treat. Petrossian didn’t agree with this description. Sixty Euros for a single 30g portion (although it’s not the top-of-the-line items) was not to him to be excessive.
Based on Forbes magazine’s annually published Cost of Living Extremely Well Index, which measures the price of items of high-end (including one Kilo of Petrossian caviar) against the rate of inflation, nearly all luxury items are becoming more costly, even for one percent. Everything is dependent. Much like many people who are in the middle of the economy, I have lower purchasing power.
The reality is that it’s not in everyone’s best interest to allow the cost of caviar to drop. People with wealth would need to find a costly alternative to flaunt with caviar if it was reduced to, for instance, the price of smoking salmon.
In the course of my research, I was able to listen to an episode on In Our Time on Radio 4 in which Melvyn Bragg & Co discussed the forgotten 18th-century economics expert Bernard Mandeville, who wrote that society must have high-end goods to stimulate consumption and increase growth via the power of envy and status. This was the basis of the “greed is good” argument.
The concept of luxury, however, is a concept that can be adapted. In the past, Soviets believed that food served to the tsars should be accessible for all people, and they used it to market 30g jars of caviar, which were inferior pieces of pasteurized roe that had been faded — on the local market, and export caviar to the west in exchange for hard currency.
Nowadays, caviar is stretched to the extent that the income gap will stretch. Even as an Austrian fish farmer laced albino sturgeon’s white caviar using 22-carat gold and markets caviar for more than 100,000 euros per Kilo, the discount retailer Lidl can offer caviar in 15g containers for EUR9.99. Aspiration can be as expensive or cheap as you’d like.