Russia – undoubtedly associated with caviar. How its turbulent history influenced the fate of black gold could be the inspiration for many full-length movies. But let’s start from the beginning, when vast steppes, taiga and tundra were still a secret to Europe…
However, the 13th century was primarily a tragic period in Russian history. It was then when the Mongol rule had begun and it lasted several subsequent centuries. Nonetheless, Batu-Chan – the founder of the Golden Horde acquired a taste for caviar and when in one of the monastery, located near the Volga river, a lavish feast was prepared for him, he appreciated not only the taste of sturgeon, but also an apple with a caviar served as a dessert. When, after years of fighting, he was dethroned and forced to retreat towards the Caspian Sea, he apparently still remembered his culinary experience. He founded his capital in areas nearby today’s Astrakhan and took control of the sturgeon fishing areas. For the first time caviar became one of the export goods, although at first it was not only oversalted, but after reaching Europe – also already spoiled.
In 1556 Ivan the Terrible regained the land that had belonged to the Mongols and gained access to the Caspian Sea. The Russians not only mastered the Astrakhan area, but also demanded – as a form of tribute – a share in the annual sturgeon catch. Moreover, Mongols were to supply fresh fish to Moscow, which was about 1500 kilometers away. To meet these requirements, they would wrap sturgeons in straw, and put vodka-soaked rags in their snouts. Allegedly, this increased the number of those that reached Moscow alive. Subsequent tsars – from Alexis I to Peter the Great – were equally interested in fishing for sturgeon and obtaining caviar. This time, however, they had to form an alliance with the Cossacks. Caviar was used by them – on one hand as an attempt to tame the tsar, and on the other – as a subject of blackmail. Eventually, sturgeon eggs were taxed, caviar trade regulated, and the Cossacks obtained the exclusive right to catch sturgeon in the Caspian Sea and to collect salt taxes. However, caviar was still treated as a non-export product. The reason was that the long distance of the areas of the Caspian Sea from international capitals caused in inability to guarantee the right temperature during transport.
Everything changed during the Turkish-Russian wars, in the second half of the 18th century. Greek captain Ioannis Varvakis bought the ship and all war equipment to fight against the Ottoman Empire. However, before any battle was fought, tsarina Catherine II the Great and the Turkish Sultan made peace. Left alone, Greek warriors suffered increasing harassment from the Turks. Also Varvakis lost all his belongings, but thanks to an accidental meeting with Grigory Patiomkin – tsarina’s lover – he got a chance for an audience with her. Good luck favored him, he received not only financial compensation, but also permission to exclusive sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea without tax. As soon as he realized the scale of profits he could achieve, he also saw numerous obstacles. He knew that storing caviar in wooden barrels that provide significant air circulation, would spoil the product. However, he reached for the Cossacks’ experience and began producing his own packaging from linden wood. Thanks to this improvement, he developed his business so quickly that in the 1980s he employed around 3,000 people and exported caviar to almost the furthest European countries.
During the reign of Tsarina Catherine, caviar underwent social advancement and from fasting food it became a rarity for the wealthy. It was mainly served in a rolled blini with a little butter and it was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Efforts were also made to popularize the view that caviar slows down the absorption of alcohol in the body, so you could consume larger amounts of vodka or champagne by eating it. Surprisingly, however, the tsarina herself preferred to enjoy caviar with porter.
Of course, inventions of the industrial revolution also contributed to achieving huge profits from the export of caviar. First, the introduction of icehouses, and then the railway line between the Volga and Don was opened (1865), thanks to which the transport time of caviar from Astrakhan to the Mediterranean and northern Europe was significantly reduced. Only during the first year of railway operation, more than a quarter of all caviar production in Astrakhan went to Europe.