What price caviar: food of tsars, shahs, emperors, oligarchs and billionaires?

Caviar, the unfertilized eggs of just three species of sturgeon, has long graced the tables of the rich and the powerful and continues to be one of the world's most highly prized luxury foods

The sturgeon, whose lineage is over 250 million years old, may have survived whatever disaster killed the dinosaurs but human-inflicted ills of over-fishing, pollution and habitat degradation have proved calamitous to its numbers.

After stocks of wild sturgeon in the Caspian and Black Seas dropped to critical levels, strict quotas and licences control the trade of caviar internationally. CITES, an UN-linked organization set up to protect endangered species, first banned fishing of wild sturgeon in 2001. More recently these bans have been partially relaxed, allowing miniscule stocks of wild sturgeon to be harvested by countries bordering the Caspian Sea under a quota system, but today most caviar is farm-sourced.

Sturgeon aquaculture is only for the patient: it takes between 7 and 15 years for a female sturgeon to reach maturity and until recently harvesting her eggs could only be done by killing her. In spite of these economic obstacles, the high prices paid by premium delicatessens, fine restaurants and private individuals, have proved a sufficient lure to entrepreneurial sturgeon-farmers. There are now thriving sturgeon farms in far-flung corners of the world from the US to Korea, Greenland, Switzerland, France, Latvia, China and Denmark. From the Swiss Alps to the Yangtze River, the Gironde to the Sacramento Valley, sturgeons are being sustainably farmed, while their Caspian Sea cousins continue to struggle for survival.

As with all premium products, caviar is subject to a detailed rating system. While size, uniformity, provenance, flavor and processing method used, all play a part in determining price, color is perhaps the most critical to establishing quality. The very lightest roe is the most prized – with a 000 rating – down to the darkest 0. 

Then there is the species of sturgeon: beluga caviar from the huso huso sturgeon is the most sought after and pricey. The large, buttery roe range in color from black to light gray. Marky's sells beluga at $300 an ounce; Petrossian (the firm founded in 1920 that now accounts for 30 per cent of the US market and 15 per cent of the world market) has beluga at $270 an ounce.  The best caviar is aged from three months to a year to develop the flavor and is preserved at strict temperatures in a light salting method known as Malossol. Less than five per cent salt is added to the fresh roe. 

Ostra caviar has a nutty flavor and a light brown appearance. Aficionados praise its subtle charms that are less salty than the beluga.

Sevruga, the smallest of the sturgeon, produces roe that are black to gray with a distinct salty flavor. Because sevruga are difficult to farm, prices have risen almost to the levels of beluga in recent years.

Ten years ago Petrossian would not have considered buying farmed caviar: today 100 per cent of their caviar is farm-sourced.

Isidoro Garbarino, and the illicit trade that made him a huge fortune, may be the reason. In January 2013 Garbarino pleaded guilty to decades of fraudulent selling of Iranian and Russian caviar to high-end shops and restaurants. Repackaging caviar bought in kilo-jars into tiny designer jars and tins, Garbarino was able to hide the origins of his caviar and dodge strict CITES traceability rules. He, and others like him, provided distribution of illegally sourced wild caviar. DNA-labelling and tighter controls are making the illegal traffic of wild caviar more difficult, but also the improving quality of caviar produced through aquaculture is removing the market for wild caviar – in the end the most effective disincentive.

New techniques allow caviar to be removed from the sturgeon without slicing through the ovaries. These fish can then be returned to the water and in two years will be ready to spawn again. This trend, together with increasingly skilled aquaculture methods, could, some commentators have suggested, lead to a glut in the world production of caviar and a corresponding decline in prices. It is already possible to find beluga caviar online for under $100 an ounce – two thirds lower than a premium-labelled caviar or any beluga caviar sold five years ago.

photo by Annie Roi

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