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Black caviar is considered to be one of the most expensive and delicious delicacies. Long since all over the world they consider it a dish of Russian traditional cuisine. However, the majority of the population of Russia, like the entire former USSR, hardly remembers its taste. At one time, the only “black gold” of our country was not oil, but “sturgeon eggs” —this is what black caviar is called in ichthyology, fish science.
Black caviar is given by sturgeon fish – sturgeon, beluga and sturgeon. An adult beluga, not meeting natural predators dangerous for it, except man, lives longer than a century and reaches a weight of hundreds of kilograms. It is the largest freshwater fish on the globe. By the beginning of the 20th century, due to the massive industrial fishing, the age limit and the size of the beluga decreased by half.
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According to geologists, the Caspian Sea appeared about 100 thousand centuries ago on the territory of the Eurasian continent. Even in our XXI century, the Caspian gives 90% of all black caviar mined all over the world. In the distant past, before the start of industrial fishing, the biological resources of the Caspian Sea and the Volga River reached fantastic volumes and sizes.
Elite fish “almost equal to dolphins”
The ancient Greek historians Polybius and Strabo, who lived in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, mention the export of large sturgeon fish “almost equal to dolphins” from the Azov and Caspian regions. In ancient Rome, sturgeon fish was considered an elite delicacy.
Black caviar falling on the river trade routes to Novgorod has been mentioned since the 13th century. From the 15th century, Volga caviar was delivered to the court of the Grand Dukes of Moscow. The lower reaches of the Volga River abounded with sturgeon fish and black caviar only became part of the Russian state in the middle of the 16th century, after the capture of Kazan and the Astrakhan khanate by the king Ivan the Terrible.
In 1554, Russian troops put on the throne of the Astrakhan Khanate a new puppet khan, who pledged to pay tribute to the Russian tsar. By that time, Moscow had already consumed gourmet fish and black caviar in large quantities. Therefore, as part of the tribute, Ivan the Terrible ordered Khan Dervish Ali to supply the royal treasury annually 3,000 large belugas and sturgeon in fresh and salted form. Until the beginning of the last century, the average weight of sturgeon in the Volga reached 200 kilograms, so the size of the Astrakhan fish tribute to Moscow can be estimated at 400–600 tons of delicacy fish annually.
Volga beluga weighing 72 pounds (1152 kg), exhibited in the Moscow shop of merchant Bobkov, 1910.
In addition to supplying fish, the Moscow contract with the dependent Astrakhan khan included the right of the Russian people without paying tribute to catching the Volga fish all along the river from Kazan to the Caspian Sea. In just two years, the Astrakhan Khanate was liquidated, and the entire Volga finally became the Russian river along its entire length, and since then the largest share of sturgeon and black caviar belonged to Russia.
The scale of consumption of black caviar in pre-Petrine Rus can be estimated according to the data of the Trinity-Sergius Monastery of the early 17th century. On the eve of the Time of Troubles, 6 thousand sturgeon and sturgeon sturgeon and 600 poods (almost 10 tons) of black caviar were delivered to the monastery every year.
In 1669, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, father of the future Emperor Peter I, issued the first decree on the regulation of fishing. By that time, sturgeon fishing on the Volga reached 50 thousand tons annually.
In addition to caviar, Volga fish supplied the whole of Russia with glue. In the Middle Ages, the best glue was considered to be fish from sturgeon, which in Russia was called “Karluk”. Until the twentieth century, the glue was made from treated swimming bubbles of sturgeon and was considered the best and most durable.
On average, one ton of sturgeon fish produced about 1 kilogram of dry fish glue, which went both to the domestic market and for export. By the end of the 17th century, about 300 pounds of such glue were made of sturgeon and beluga on the Volga. It is not difficult to calculate that for the manufacture of such a quantity it took to kill fish with a total weight of almost 5 thousand tons. But it was worth it – European merchants willingly bought sturgeon glue for the price of 7 to 15 rubles in silver per pound. That is, three kilograms of such glue cost as a good horse.
The personal doctor of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, an Englishman Samuel Collins, who lived in Moscow for nine years, described the technology by which Muscovites prepared caviar from sturgeon fish. The extracted caviar is “cleaned, salted and put in a trough to drain its oily and fatty juices; then they put it in barrels and crush it very tightly, as long as it becomes firm. ” “Fresh salted”, as it was then called, “unstressed” caviar, according to Collins, was unusually tasty and was sold in large quantities, but quickly deteriorated.
According to the Englishman, caviar extracted from belugs was called Armenian in Russia. “Arminska Ekra” – this is what the Englishman writes, explaining that Armenian merchants were the first to manufacture it during the time of the Golden Horde. Soon the “Armenian” caviar in Russia was more often called “payusnaya”, and it was from the seventeenth century that they began to be actively sold to the countries of Western Europe.
Western European diplomats, arriving then in Moscow, were very interested in caviar market and caviar prices. At the end of 1653, the Swedish trade representative in Moscow, Johann de Rodes, sent an analytical report to Stockholm on the “Detailed report on commerce in Russia”.
The best in quality caviar, “the best, pressed Kaviar,” as de Rodes writes, was sent from Nizhny Novgorod on ships up the Volga to Yaroslavl, and from there through Vologda in carts on sleds to Arkhangelsk. Here, the caviar was profitably sold to European merchants, in payment they accepted only silver coins. De Rodes reports that in 1651-1653, 20 thousand pounds of Kaviar in 400 barrels were removed from Arkhangelsk. In the domestic market of Russia, such a volume of caviar cost about 30 thousand rubles in silver. But for European merchants, prices were even higher — in 1654, almost 12 pounds of caviar were sold for export abroad to the Dutch merchant at a price at least twice as expensive as in the domestic market.
“Ikryany ships” from Muscovy
Already at the end of the 16th century, in his book “On the Russian State”, Giles Fletcher, the envoy of the Queen of England to the son of Ivan the Terrible, reported on the vast geography of caviar trade from Russia: .
Since 1589, the Dutch merchant Marcus de Vogelar organized shipments of black caviar from Arkhangelsk across Europe to Italy. It was his company that initiated the mass export of Russian black caviar to the south of Western Europe. For example, it is known that in 1605 two ships of the Vogelaar transported from Archangel to Venice a large batch of caviar in 124 barrels, that is, about 100 tons.
The increased demand of the Italian aristocracy and city leaders for black caviar was already formed by the beginning of the 17th century. The Dutch envoy Isaac Massa, who was in Russia in 1601-1609, wrote about the Italians’ passion for black caviar, harvested from sturgeon, caught on the Volga. The archives of that century preserved the correspondence of the dukes of Tuscany with the kings Boris Godunov and later with Alexei Mikhailovich about the purchases of caviar by the Italian merchants.
In 1654, the Florentine merchants sent a letter to Moscow with a request to provide them with “caviar redemption” for five years, promising to buy 400 caviar barrels annually in the port of Arkhangelsk. However, the tsarist government chose to retain trade in caviar with already proven merchants from Holland. In the Russian diplomatic documents of that time, Dutch ships sailing from Arkhangelsk to Italy were so directly called “caviar ships”.
In the years of the first Tsar of the Romanovs Mikhail Fedorovich, trade in caviar with foreigners becomes a state monopoly. From the Volga region to the Russian North, caviar was transported by specially selected merchants, members of the privileged “Merchant Chamber”, working under the direction of the “Order of the Great Treasury”, that is, the Ministry of Finance of the first kings from the Romanov dynasty.
The “Merchant Chamber” annually for the arrival of foreign ships sent special carts to Arkhangelsk with Volga black caviar, Siberian sables and other “state goods”, goods for the sale of which a state monopoly was established. The right to “buy out”, that is, the purchase of caviar was granted to those foreign merchants who offered higher prices and larger volumes of purchases.
In 1676, the tsarist government set monopoly prices for black caviar for “overseas leave” of three silver rubles per pound. That is, 16 kg of caviar for European buyers cost one and a half times more expensive than the price of an average horse in Russia. But foreign merchants did not complain – in the XVII century, they resold Russian caviar to European ports with a profit of 30 to 40%.
Beluga, caught in the Saratov region in 1937.
From the beginning of the reign of Peter I and until 1702, the royal treasury sold black caviar to the west through the Hamburg merchant Farius for the price of two and a half silver thalers per pood. The secretary of the Austrian embassy, ??Johann-Georg Korb, who visited Russia in 1698, wrote: “Salted caviar exported under the name of Kavyar in large vessels to overseas lands constitutes a rich trade item.” According to Korb, only Dutch merchants paid Russia every year 80 thousand silver coins for the right to export caviar.
Foreigners more than once described Russian delicacy with great interest. The English Count Charles Carlyle, the ambassador to the Russian tsar in 1664, later recalled: “From sturgeon eggs that are caught in the Volga, they prepare a magnificent dish called ikary, and the Italians, who love him very much, cavayar (cavayar) . Russians spawn this spawn and, having cooked it with salt for 10 or 12 days, eat it with salad, pepper, onion, oil and vinegar. ”
In the same 1664, the employee of the Dutch embassy in Moscow, Nikolaas Witsen, describing treats at a reception at the tsar, especially notes black caviar and even caviar pies. Georg Adam Schleissinger, a German traveler who visited Russia in 1684, describes caviar in the following way: “This is a good dish for those who are used to it, and most of them keep caviar for refreshments. It is finely cut into small circles and seasoned with vinegar, olive oil, onion and pepper. In the provinces, the caviar is eaten immediately after the removal of fish. Prepare it in the same way, but without olive oil. This is a delicacy. ”
Caviar Kings of Russia
The wars and reforms initiated by Peter I demanded considerable expenses. In search of new sources of income for the royal treasury, the emperor turned to black caviar – from January 1704, the state monopoly was introduced not only for the import of caviar abroad, but also for all the extraction and sale of caviar within Russia.
From now on, all fishing grounds were “taken to the treasury,” and they began to be given at the mercy of the auction. For sturgeon fishing without appropriate payments, the state was entitled to a fine of tenfold. In Astrakhan, a special “Fish bureau” was created to manage the caviar industries. In Nizhny Novgorod, the “sovereigns of the working fields of the rulers” sorted the extracted caviar and distributed it to Arkhangelsk for export and to the domestic market – to Moscow and to the Makaryevsky fair.
During the first quarter of the XVIII century, that is, throughout the reign of Peter I, almost 80% of black caviar was exported. By decree of the Senate of March 2, 1725, all proceeds from the import of black caviar to Europe were prescribed to be directed to the financing of the Russian military fleet. For one decade, from 1722 to 1731, the treasury of the Russian Empire received from the sale abroad of black caviar, sturgeon and fish glue 580,022 rubles. Most of this huge amount at that time was the cost of caviar.
At the end of the reign of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, all the fisheries on the Volga near Astrakhan were given “at the mercy” of the Kolomna merchant Sidor Popov, one of the richest merchants of Russia. For his monopoly, the merchant pledged to pay 9 thousand rubles in silver to the treasury annually.
Using his position, the merchant immediately inflated the prices for fish products, not so much on caviar, as on fish glue, without which then no manufactory and handicraft production could do, from leather and footwear to paper. If earlier fish glue “karluk” from sturgeon fish cost on the domestic market, depending on quality, from 4 to 13 rubles 35 kopecks per pound, then a merchant Popov already a year later, his monopoly raised prices four times – from 16 to 40 rubles per pound . In 1763, the new empress Catherine II abolished the monopoly of the merchant Popova.
In 1762, caviar for 12.5 thousand rubles was exported through the port of Arkhangelsk, and almost 6 thousand silver rubles through the port of St. Petersburg. At this time, the caviar mined in the Volga began to be exported not only through the Baltic and White Seas, but also to the south through the land customs in Ukraine and the Port of Temernikov, as the future Rostov-on-Don was then called. From here black caviar was sold to Austria-Hungary, Italy, Spain and Turkey.
Already in 1760, from the Temernikovsky port through the Azov, Black and Mediterranean seas, 11063 pounds (177 tons) of caviar were exported abroad. By the end of the 18th century, the main merchant of Astrakhan black caviar in the Black Sea region was a Russian merchant, a Greek by nationality Ivan Varvatsi, who served in the Russian navy and even was awarded for the heroism shown in the Chesmen battle with the Turks. Varvatsi and other merchants on the eve of the Napoleonic wars exported Volga black caviar from Rostov-on-Don and Taganrog in the amount of 300 thousand rubles annually.
The Volga and the Caspian Sea remained a source of sturgeon and black caviar for a long time. Since the reign of Emperor Alexander I and almost throughout the 19th century, the largest caviar miners in Russia were the Sapozhnikov Brothers merchant firm, founded by Peter Sapozhnikov and his sons, Alexei and Alexander. It is curious that the Saratov merchant Peter Sapozhnikov was the son of an old believer and an active participant in the Pugachev rebellion, which did not prevent him from becoming the leading “caviar king” of Russia by the beginning of the 19th century.
The merchants Sapozhnikov paid to Prince Alexander Kurakin, a personal friend of Emperor Paul I, for renting “fish places” a fantastic amount for those times, from 380 to 450 thousand rubles annually. Kurakin spent this huge money on the purchase of precious stones, for which he was nicknamed “the diamond prince” in Petersburg.
In 1822, the merchant Sapozhnikov bought from the merchant Ivan Varvatsi the richest fish industry in the Lower Volga near the village of Ikryanoye. By the middle of the 19th century, the Brothers Sapozhnikovs, a merchant firm, had more than 20 fishing cooperatives with more than 15,000 permanent workers. All the fish caught by the Sapozhnikov artel was delivered to the place of processing in live form on special boats with slots for filling with water, they were towed by steamers in tow. In total, the property of the Sapozhnikov merchant clan had 11 steamboats and 550 such special boats. The annual turnover of the Sapozhnikov Brothers exceeded 10 million rubles a year. Every year their company caught at least 100 million sturgeon and beluga.
The largest of the documented in the history of Russia, the beluga was caught on the Volga in the Astrakhan region in 1827 – its weight was 90 pounds, that is, one and a half tons. On May 11, 1922, a beluga female weighing 1224 kilograms was caught in the Caspian Sea near the mouth of the Volga – almost 147 kilograms of black caviar were extracted from this fish. Nowadays, the cost of such a quantity of caviar on the Moscow market will exceed 6 million rubles.
Black caviar in the 20th century
To store caviar and fish, special glaciers were being prepared – huge caves dug on the banks of the Volga and the Caspian Sea, which during the winter special workers filled with ice and snow. Volga fishermen called such ice-caves “exits” or “refrigerators”.
The Sapozhnikov Brothers were the first in Russia to begin using artificial freezing of fish. In 1904, in Astrakhan, they built a fish refrigerator with a volume of 192 tons and at the same time exactly the same refrigerated warehouse in Moscow. From here “sapozhnikovsky” caviar came to Germany, Austria, Turkey, Greece and even to North America.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the catch of beluga, the largest sturgeon fish on the Volga and the Caspian, reached its peak – from 1902 to 1907, 10 to 15 thousand tons of beluga were caught annually. It was then that the stocks of this fish, which have never been restored to their previous level, were undermined.
In total, at the beginning of the 20th century, in the Caspian Sea and the Volga, Russian fishermen caught up to 40 thousand tons of sturgeon annually. Now the catch of delicious fish in the same region is two orders of magnitude less – only about 600 tons per year.
By the beginning of the 20th century, a lot of varieties and types of black caviar were distinguished, depending on the fish and methods of processing. Beluga was considered the best, then sturgeon and stellate sturgeon. Sturgeon caviar is considered the better and valued the higher, the larger and lighter the grain-eggs.
Freshly salted “granular” caviar was considered the highest quality, then “pressed”, “pressed”, “hot”. The cheapest was the so-called “yastichnaya” or “bagny” caviar. It was salted directly in the form in which it was extracted from fish, that is, in natural films-membranes of eggs, which were called “jasties”.
According to statistics from 1913, the Russian Empire then produced 1177 thousand poods (almost 19 thousand tons) of sturgeon fish – the catch fell by almost two times compared with the very beginning of the XX century. The best “grainy” beluga caviar cost 3 rubles 20 kopecks per kilo that year. The cost of “pressed” caviar, depending on the variety and quality, ranged from 80 kopecks to 1 ruble 80 kopecks per kilogram. For comparison, a loaf of black bread then cost 3-4 kopecks.
During the years of the First World War and the Civil War, fishing for sturgeon fish dropped sharply, which over the decade from 1914 to 1924 led to a slight increase in the fish stock. Therefore, the decade before the Second World War was one of the peaks of sturgeon and caviar fishing. Black caviar exports have become an important source of currency for industrialization. For example, in 1929, 789 tons of black caviar were exported from the USSR for 15 million dollars – in 2014 prices it will be almost a billion modern dollars.
On May 3, 1926, a 75-year-old female beluga weighing more than 1 ton and more than 4 meters long was caught in the Caspian Sea near the mouth of the Ural River. It contained 12 pounds, that is, 190 kilograms of caviar.
In terms of the number of sturgeon caught, the 30s of the 20th century reached a maximum level in previous centuries, but in terms of the total mass of fish, the catches were lower than the catches of the beginning of the 20th century. This was due to the fact that previous generations of fishermen fished out the oldest and largest fish. Compared with the beginning of the century, the average mass of beluga and sturgeon on the Volga and in the northern part of the Caspian Sea by the end of the 1930s has almost halved.
If at the beginning of the 20th century, the age of the oldest and largest belugas in catches was estimated at 100-120 years, then by 1940 it had decreased by half. For this reason, the amount of caviar produced decreased in relation to the mass of fish caught. According to statistics, in 1926 the weight of caviar was more than 8% of the mass of fish caught, by 1935 it had dropped to 4%, and by 1940 – to 2.6%.
The history of black caviar history, Russia, black caviar
To save valuable varieties of fish in 1938, introduced limits on sturgeon fishing. During the Great Patriotic War, the catches of this fish in the USSR decreased by 13 times to 3 thousand tons compared to the beginning of the century. Extracted black caviar went mainly to the ration of military pilots and submariners, as a high-calorie and high-energy product.
In order to prevent further extinction of sturgeon in 1962-65, they took tough measures to restrict and regulate fishing, first of all, banned the tools and fishing methods that led to a massive catch of “young” sturgeon and other valuable fish. As a result, by the 1970s, the size and weight of sturgeon, stellate sturgeon and beluga fish increased significantly on the Volga and the Caspian, and the caviar output increased, that is, the ratio of caviar mass to fish weight. Sturgeon catches in 1977 amounted to 29 thousand tons, that is, almost reached the level of 1913.
Black caviar after the USSR
On the eve of the collapse in 1989, the USSR produced almost 1,366 tons of black caviar, over 90% of all the produced black caviar in the world. Today, at restaurant prices for black caviar in the capitals of Western Europe, such amount of “black gold” will cost almost $ 11 billion.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was not only geopolitical, but also a real “caviar” catastrophe. Until 1991, the shores of the Caspian belonged to only two states – the USSR and Iran, and most of them belonged to our country, almost 90% of its water area. After the collapse of the USSR, the coast of the Caspian Sea belongs to five states – the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran.
Under the conditions of the new, post-Soviet borders of the Russian Federation, less than a third of the length of the Caspian coast that the USSR once owned belongs to it. In 2000, Russia mined only 40 tons of black caviar – 34 times less than the USSR a decade earlier.
If in 1989 the Soviet Union exported 141 tons of black caviar abroad, in 2010 Russia exported 14 times less, only 10 tons. Law enforcement officials estimated that another 60 tons of black caviar that year were smuggled abroad, without paying taxes and duties.
The economic crisis that followed the collapse of the USSR and the almost uncontrolled rampant poaching in 20 years reduced the catch of sturgeon 20 times. To preserve stocks of beluga in Russia since 2000 even had to completely ban its fishing.
The export of Russian black caviar is hampered, among other things, by the success of artificial breeding of sturgeon fish abroad. Dozens of tons of black caviar are produced in the fisheries of Germany, France, the USA, Italy and Uruguay – many times more than Russia exports. For example, Agroitica in Lombardy, Italy, specializes in breeding eels and sturgeon, in 2007 it produced 37 tons of black caviar, which is almost four times the most legal exports from the Russian Federation.
Based on the 2010 restaurant prices, 1 kg of black caviar in Makhachkala cost 1 thousand dollars, in Moscow – 4 thousand, in New York – 8 thousand, in London – 20 thousand, in Courchevel – 25 thousand.
All this “factory” production of black caviar does not in any way cancel the elite position of this product and extremely high prices, but it does not at all contribute to Russia’s profit from the export of caviar from the Volga. The shadow turnover of caviar business in Russia from the 90s to the present reaches 92% of all black caviar sales abroad and in the domestic market.
Since 2012, in order to preserve valuable fish species, by a joint decision of all the Caspian littoral states, commercial sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea has been banned for a period of 5 years. Today, legal black caviar, harvested in wildlife, and not in artificially bred fish farms, is completely absent from the market.