Antonius Caviar

La Belle Epoque for caviar – Europe

Caviar was a much appreciated and respected product in European countries and it was travellers who were mostly responsible for its popularization. But before the 14th century it had not been widely known in Europe, particularly in its western part. However, when Venetian merchants (intrigued by the notes from Marco Polo’s travels) started importing caviar, it quickly translated into fascination and interest in this delicacy which embraced Italian cities and then the whole Europe.

The Renaissance period was a time when Europe was open to novelties, so the popularity of caviar grew. An example would be the notes of the papal chef Maestro Martino from 1465, who included several recipes for caviar dishes in his manuscripts. For example, he suggested placing a piece of pressed roe on the slice of bread and then baking it on the fire, until caviar acquired color and became hard and crunchy. Almost 100 years later, Bartolomeo Scappi, who prepared a feast after the election of Pope Pius V to the Holy See, served “warm caviar” generously seasoned with pepper and sprinkled with orange juice. Europe discovered caviar not only in culinary, but also in a therapeutic sense.

Even though caviar was popular and celebrated in Russia, where it was served on the tables of both the poor and the rich, it took many Europeans a longer time to appreciate its sophisticated taste. There is an anecdote about King Louis XV, who as a teenager, was offered caviar by Tsar Peter the Great and right after tasting he spat it out in disgust on the expensive carpet of Versaille Palace. That, however, did not stop the career of the delicacy in later years and by the end of the reign of Louis XV even special tables for serving caviar were introduced.

Tsar Peter I the Great and Empress Catherine II contributed to the dissemination of caviar in Europe. The story of Ioannis Varvakis, a Greek captain, is a good example. During the wars of Russia ruled by Empress Catherine II with Turkey, Varvakis bought a ship with war equipment in order to support Russia. However, before he was able to take part in any battle, Catherine and Turkish sultan made peace. As compensation for loss of his belongings he received permission for exclusive sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea without tax. Varvakis realized the potential of the gift only when he tried caviar himself while being in Astrakhan. As soon as he realized the scale of profits he could achieve, he began to improve the storage methods and introduced his own barrels from linden wood. In the 1980’s he was already employing around 3,000 people and exporting caviar to almost the furthest European countries.

Another important records in the European history of caviar date back to the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century. Tsar Alexander, in order to popularize the consumption of Russian delicacy, would sent his troops to the front equipped them not only with weapons, but also with barrels full of caviar. He offered it to his European allies, and they soon began to send their court chefs to Russia to learn the recipes for caviar dishes.

The introduction of a steamboats and modern technologies of food storage allowed the whole world to enjoy fresh roe from Russia. Transport became faster. In the era of industrialization society was wealthier and the access to exclusive groceries was wider. The price of caviar increased quickly but it did not frighten wealthy gourmets. Price madness around caviar had a big impact on increasing the attraction of “black gold”.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 also strongly contributed to promoting of caviar in Europe. It was the October Revolution that drove the flower of the Russian aristocracy to Paris which allowed the rich to infect salons of European capitals, such as Paris or Berlin, with their sophisticated extravagances. Sumptuous life of the Russian aristocracy, their numerous excesses and culinary exoticisms fascinated Western industrial magnates, entrepreneurs and the European aristocracy. They were fascinated by caviar and considered it to be such a distinctive and appealing delicacy that it became a regular product at the salon feasts and a symbol of love for luxury and debauchery of wealthy Western Europe. As a result, in the early 20th century caviar was already beyond the reach of working class. 

Belle Époque brought the luxury also to German palates. Johannes Dieckmann and his son-in-law Johannes Hansen noticed that fishermen who fish in the vicinity of the port of Hamburg threw away the roe of the caught sturgeon as an unnecessary by-product. So they set up a business selling both fish and roe. They started the production of caviar from the fish living in Elbe, mixing the roe with the salt from Luneberg. Some part of the roe was acquired from the mentioned fishermen. As European restaurants finally appreciated the benefits of caviar, Dieckmann saw this as an opportunity to make a profit. He concluded an agreement with Russia, which made him the most important importer of Astrakhan caviar across Europe.

Unfortunately, the increased interest in caviar in Europe, as it was in Russia, became a threat to the survival of wild sturgeon in the waters of the river Elbe. Dieckemann was well aware of the threat of extinction. The growing demand for caviar, uncontrolled fishing associated with it, and pollution of the rivers forced Dieckmann to explore new areas for fishing. He went to America to seek not only new markets but above all, new sources of wild sturgeon roe.

World War I ended the beautiful era for caviar, both in Russia and in Europe.