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Inga Saffron practically places herself in as precarious a position as the fish she chronicles in Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy. The former Moscow correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer wants us to understand the unique joys of salted roe while at the same time depicting the serious threats faced by caviar’s most famous sources: the sturgeon species found in the Caspian Sea.
Saffron dips her toe carefully into this murky water. She seems to understand the danger inherent in espousing her love of caviar—choose your favorite firepower metaphor: the “salty-buttery richness filled my mouth, nuclear in its intensity” or “the sensation of eggs [bursting] like fireworks in the mouth”—while countries argue over ways to save sturgeon species that managed to survive 250 million years until caviar captured the bourgeois imagination. She fortifies herself, and her precarious position, with a rather flimsy optimism: the hope that hatcheries can begin to restock the dangerously low populations of beluga, Russian, and stellate sturgeon. So Caviar, in a sense, serves as an apologia for those who still can afford to slap down hundreds of bucks to swallow a few spoonfuls of beluga or sevruga eggs.
But I suspect anyone with an interest in Caviar, the book, doesn’t need much justification to continue to consume the tiny round combustibles. As Saffron points out, people rarely hold moderate views about caviar: You’re either radically for it or against it, whether on culinary or moral grounds. I doubt anyone with a bias against caviar would purchase Saffron’s modest offering; it’d be like a peacenik buying a coffee-table book on Soviet combat aircraft from World War II. Saffron appears to be catering more to an audience that still holds romantic views of caviar, much like herself, and knows little about the food’s history. Caviar, then, can be seen as the culinary equivalent to all those books about the British monarchy.
The author, however, revels in the irony surrounding caviar’s current royal treatment. She takes pains to depict roe’s humble beginnings as a staple of Russian Orthodox churchgoers: “Orthodox Christians were obligated to eschew meat for as many as two hundred days a year. The fasting regime had the effect of turning Russians into great consumers of fish.” Sturgeon was a good choice, because 80 percent of the fish is edible, but the meat was too expensive for many peasants. Roe, however, remained within their budget, so the church magnanimously decided in 1280 to sanction caviar as suitable fasting fare.
Technological advancements, modest ones at first, started the transformation of caviar from a peasant food to an aristocratic one. A Greek sea captain and trader named Ioannis Varvarkis stumbled into the caviar trade after he lost everything following a war with the Ottoman Empire in which he fought for the interests of Catherine the Great. He hoofed it to Russia, explained his desperate condition to the tsarina, and was awarded a fishing license in the sturgeon-rich Caspian. Taking his cue from the fishermen around Astrakhan, Varvarkis decided to trade in roe, which was a delicacy back in Greece. The seaman’s only problem was one of transportation: how to move large volumes of caviar to the Mediterranean without its spoiling. He found a solution in linden trees, whose wood produced far superior, less permeable shipping barrels than the ones traditionally used by the Russians.
Varvarkis’ discovery was the first of many that would transform the caviar industry from a localized Russian trade to an international one. The invention of ice machines, steamboats, and railroads made shipping even easier in the late 19th century. In the 20th century, tiny glass jars and vacuum sealing would revolutionize the industry all over again—although with an ominous subtext: The small, carefully sealed containers were a visual reminder of how rare sturgeon roe had become following decades of overfishing, habitat loss, and industrial pollution.
Saffron sedulously chronicles the decline and near-extinction of sturgeon stocks in the world’s rivers. She devotes an entire chapter to “The American Caviar Rush,” which owed its success to the enterprising Germans who first taught the Yankees, in the early 1870s, not to turn up their noses at the ungainly sturgeon and its seemingly worthless roe. The Germans had reason to turn to America for their fish-egg fix: They had, in just a few years, exhausted the stocks in the Elbe from a combination of overfishing and pollution.
The American industry was destined for the same fate, but not before it produced the prerequisite boom town—a burg named, with plodding literalism, Caviar, N.J. (now called Bayside). The town, located off the Delaware River, was considered America’s Astrakhan, the Russian city along the Volga where the caviar trade was essentially born.
The American caviar industry had barely developed its sea legs before the whole ship ran aground. Writes Saffron:
The season of 1900 marked the thirty-year anniversary of the American caviar industry. After three decades of relentless fishing along the East Coast, vast numbers of spawning sturgeon had been taken out of the reproductive pool. The fish that should have been spawning for the first time in 1900 had never been born. Their eggs had long ago been eaten. That year, sturgeon stocks crashed in every river along the East Coast. In the James, the Chesapeake, the Delaware, fishermen pulled up empty nets.
Saffron devotes most of her energy, however, to providing a rich, layered history of the Russian caviar industry. The Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, captured the lands around the Caspian in the early 13th century, controlling the area for hundreds of years until Ivan the Terrible finally ran them out in 1556. Realizing that the southwestern steppes needed protection from similar foreign invaders, Ivan encouraged Russians to relocate there; the runaway serfs and dissidents who eventually populated the area, known as the Cossacks, soon dominated the sturgeon industry along the Volga and Don Rivers.
The Russians have almost always displayed a fierce nationalist pride in their caviar industry. Arguably because of that pride—and the millions of dollars in profits made from the “black gold”—they managed the industry with relative integrity for centuries, even well into the 20th century, after other countries had sent their sturgeon the way of the dodo. Saffron unapologetically credits the totalitarian Soviet empire with establishing strict quotas and developing hatcheries to keep the Caspian brimming with valuable sturgeon. Caspian stocks took a nosedive only after the Soviet collapse in 1991, when the collective industry turned into a capitalistic free-for-all, poachers reportedly catching more than the legitimate dealers.
But the fall of Communism also meant the rise of conservation efforts to save Caspian Sea sturgeon, which at one point accounted for 95 percent of the world’s caviar. Saffron rightly notes that those efforts were spearheaded in 1998 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But then she proceeds to misinterpret, in sometimes shocking fashion, the role of CITES.
Saffron constantly refers to CITES as an “agency” and a “bureaucracy.” It is neither; it is a treaty that regulates international trade in wildlife and plants. The 160 signatory countries vote on which trade proposals to adopt; they then enforce them by altering their laws at home. Saffron repeatedly blames—or quotes those who blame—a bumbling, faceless CITES bureaucracy for not doing more to protect sturgeon species or ignoring other problems such as pollution or habitat description. She’d be better off pointing a finger at those countries that actually make a buck selling sturgeon roe.
Perhaps this sin is forgivable, though—even those who work with CITES on a regular basis are sometimes confused by its legal and political complexities. Less forgivable are the book’s editing problems. Aside from the piecemeal presentation of information—a sometimes repetitive, sometimes incomplete narrative that’s perhaps the result of a reporter who could take only six months off to research a book—Caviar offers a few too many gaffes of syntax and style. This doozy of a mixed metaphor provides but one example: “Throughout the 20th century, writers, artists, and restaurateurs larded the delicacy with myth, turning it into a touchstone of culinary nirvana.”
But Saffron at least partly compensates for this lack of literary style with sheer scope. She leaves no fin unturned in her examination of sturgeon and the caviar industry. She sketches the unusual biology of the sturgeon, the history of trapping techniques used to capture the massive and hard-plated fish, the methods for making caviar.
And, of course, she’s not shy about providing examples of her own sensual relationship with caviar:
I rolled the eggs over my tongue, allowing the taut spheres to detonate a few at a time, hoping to harbor the taste for as long as possible….New and different tastes came in explosive bursts, as the initial fishiness gave way to more complex flavors and aromas. I was reminded of other rich foods—olives, pine nuts, smoked salmon. But it was the physical sensation, the way the firm casings of the eggs gave way as they popped against my tongue and cheek, that dominated the experience.
The principal danger of reading Saffron’s book is the overwhelming desire to taste its subject. She’s shameless in depicting the world’s love of caviar. She devotes two pages to the ways the rich and famous have viewed their expensive symbols of luxury. (She quotes from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, in which the British author describes his meal of caviar and blini: “The cream and hot butter mingled and overflowed separating each glaucose bead of caviar from its fellows, capping it in white and gold.”)
After sampling Saffron’s literary appetizer, you’ll need an iron will not to rush to the nearest gourmet store and slap down a C-note or two for some caviar. And that’s the underlying tension of Caviar. You want to eat the famous roe again because of its fascinating history and tantalizing taste. You shouldn’t eat it because of the sturgeon’s endangered status. You want it; you shouldn’t have it. Not unless Saffron’s Panglossian predictions about sturgeon hatcheries come true will you be able to have it both ways. CP