The history of caviar is somewhat unclear; there are even disagreements on where the term caviar originated from. While some believe it was first introduced into the English language via Italy in the 1600s, others believe that it was derived from the Turkish wordkhavyar,(found in English print in the late 1500s). Whichever source, it is ultimately from ancient Persia who called sturgeon roe: mahi-e Khayedar, defined as literally egg-bearing fish. Although technically the Persians were the pioneers of salted caviar, it was the Russians who first introduced lightly-salted caviar (malossol caviar), which is the preferred caviar still eaten to this day.
Sturgeons have existed for nearly 250 million years, and caviar has been around almost since the dawn of the first civilizations. The ancient Persians, for example, cultivated caviar for medicinal purposes from the Caspian and Black seas. The ancient Greeks followed suit, and even Aristotle mentioned caviar in his writings. Ancient Roman parties frequently served caviar at its banquets.
Despite the availability of caviar, it was exclusively enjoyed by the upper elite in most countries. This exclusivity existed and continued for hundreds of years, well into the Middle-ages; and even the likes of Batu Khan (the grandson of Ghengis Khan) enjoyed caviar in the mid-1200s. Caviar was often used as a gift to royalty, and later reserved solely for the consumption of royalty throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, given the Caspian Sea’s proximity to Russia, Russian Czars took full advantage of this new delicacy and quickly became the primary consumers of caviar. Czar Nicholas II loved caviar so much, he even imposed an annual tax on fisherman (paid in the form of caviar).
Finally in the early 1900s, caviar ceased to be exclusively available to royalty and the elite, when caviar production shifted from major sources in Europe to that of Canada and the United States when Sturgeon were found in rivers and lakes throughout both countries. This new supply was in such great abundance that not only did Canada and the U.S. supply most of Europe with caviar, but the caviar itself was often served in taverns, saloons, and beer halls (often for free- its saltiness helped to increase the consumption and sale of beer).
The sale and consumption of caviar by the masses didn’t last long, and caviar soon returned to being exclusively available to the rich and elite around 1910 due to the massive overfishing of the sturgeon population. This all but halted caviar production in North America and made caviar an expensive luxury item once again. Not surprisingly, the overfishing in Canada and the U.S. was mirrored in the Caspian Sea as well; solidifying caviar’s place in history as an exclusive food.
It wasn’t until 1988 (7 decades later) that the sturgeon finally got some help when it was recognized as an endangered species and trade regulation was introduced. However, despite these new regulations, black-market trading, as well as rampant poaching put further strain on the future of caviar. Today there is a limit on the amount of sturgeon that can be harvested (as well as how the eggs are removed), and as a result, alternative forms of caviar (farmed, less-expensive caviar) have quickly become the norm in an otherwise highly-expensive product market.