Elite entrée in the past, national symbol in the ’90s, a pretext to arrest today - caviar, Russia’s black gold, has a long and thrilling history.
Despite common perceptions, caviar has not always been an elite product. In the US it was offered in bars and pubs in the 19th Century, like peanuts today, as the salty taste encouraged thirst and boosted beer sales.
In Tsarist Russia, however, caviar was usually reserved for the wealthy, even though the Russians’ love for this delicacy was not to everyone’s taste, like in a famous anecdote about Louis XV of France spitting out Peter the Great’s gift of black caviar.
In the USSR, caviar became more affordable for ordinary people.
“We didn’t have much black caviar back then, but the red variety was easily available,” Tamara Zolotova told RT. “We’d have some for every celebration: New Year Eve, birthday parties, all Soviet holidays. It was not eaten in spoonfuls, but we’d have it with eggs and certainly with pancakes.”
In modern Russia, caviar is much more than food. Designer Andrey Logvin has turned the gastronomic delight into a symbol of post-Soviet Russia's nouveau riches, inventing a powerful slogan “Life has been a success”.
“The idea came to me from a popular 1990s joke,” the designer recalls. “A Russian nouveau riche comes to a European casino. Among those who’ve been losing he sees an old friend, asleep with his face in a huge plate of black caviar. So he comes over, “Hey, haven’t seen you for ages, how have you been?” And the guy lifts his face off the caviar plate and says, “You know, life’s been a success!”
Although red caviar has its fans, it is the black one that has long been the pride of Russian exports. However, poaching and drastic over-fishing of recent years have dealt the industry a massive blow. The harvest and sale of black caviar in Russia has been banned, with the exception only of scientific research and the artificial breeding of black caviar fish. As a result, caviar has become harder to come by and very expensive, costing a whopping 500 dollars.
“Black caviar you see in shops is from farmed fish,” explains Aleksander Nikolaev, a marine scientist. “Or it could be coming from poachers. Our aim is to change that. In the next 10 to 15 years, fish farming will be developed well enough to slash the prices.”
In the meantime, Russian stores are filled with cheaper artificial alternatives to both black and red caviar.
“The color is different. It doesn’t taste the same. It looks like jelly,” complains Svetlana Dobrenkova from Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography. “You could put it on the table for decoration, but it wouldn’t replace the real thing!”
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