Why Is Caviar So Expensive? – If someone asked you to name the most expensive foods in the world, you might think of lobster, saffron, or Wagyu steak. Maybe ice cream topped with twenty-four karat gold flakes. But sooner or later, caviar always springs to mind – it’s widely considered to be the most expensive food in the world.
These dark, slimy eggs might look unassuming, but they’re a certified food-of-choice for the rich and famous. Everyone from Aristotle to Gordan Ramsey has declared their impartiality to caviar, and a single ounce can cost hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars. Let’s face it, most of the world’s population have never even tried caviar.
If you’re one of them, you might be wondering what the fuss is all about. Or maybe you have tried it, but were left wondering the same thing – caviar certainly has a reputation for having a, well, unusual taste. Many people assume that the high price tag comes down to caviar’s power as a status symbol.
Much like designer clothes and flashy cars, there are plenty of people willing to splash out on items that have a reputation for being expensive, for the simple reason that they want to prove they can. But when it comes to caviar, there’s actually a greater explanation for the cost. In today’s article, we’ll investigate the history of caviar, how it’s made, and why it’s so expensive.
The caviar comes from the unfertilized eggs – otherwise known as roe – of the sturgeon, a prehistoric fish that has inhabited the earth for over 250 million years, predating even the T-Rex. The sturgeon is a distant relative of the shark, and it certainly bears a resemblance. Measuring six to twenty-four feet long and weighing up to sixty kilos, this ancient creature is a force to be reckoned with.
Due to their huge size, female sturgeons can also produce millions of precious eggs; it’snot hard to see why they’ve been likened to living goldmines. The fish are native to North America and Eurasia, specifically the Caspian Sea and the BlackSea. There are twenty-seven species across the world in total, but only seven are hunted or farmed for their roe.
Why Is Caviar So Expensive?
In fact, the majority of caviar on the market comes from just four species: the Beluga; the Sterlet; the Osetra, and the Sevruga. The Beluga, found mostly in Russia, is known for being the highest quality and most expensive. Unfortunately, even though wild-caught caviar has historically been the most desirable, there aren’t many wild sturgeons in the sea anymore due to overhunting.
Instead, the majority of roe comes from farms. Production is highly concentrated in a few locations – there are just two thousand sturgeon farms in the world, and the Chinese company Kaluga Queen produces 30% of the world caviar alone, making up sixty tonnes annually.
Most other farms are in traditional sturgeon hotspots like the U.S., Russia, Europe, and Iran. So, you can probably already see the first reason why caviar is so expensive: there’snot much of it to go round. Tragically, sturgeons are the group of species most critically endangered in the world: eighteen of the twenty-seven types are on the red list for threatened species.
According to the WWF, it’s estimated that sturgeons in major basins have declined by70% over the last century. This is almost entirely due to the impact of humans. Throughout the twentieth century, sturgeons were poached aggressively and their numbers saw a rapid decline. Although many other species have been fished or hunted by humans, the impact of this is greater on the sturgeon population due to their biology.
Most animals can procreate within months, weeks, or even days – but for the sturgeon, this process takes years. Depending on the species, sturgeons only reach sexual maturity when they’re between eight and twenty years old. This means that if they’re being poached ferociously, it’s impossible for them to repopulate quickly, leaving them vulnerable to extinction.
Plus, even though female sturgeons produce millions of eggs each time they procreate,chances are that only one of those eggs will actually make it into adulthood. This means that sturgeons are vulnerable even when left in nature, but add poachers into the equation and chances of survival are even lower.
Why Is Caviar So Expensive?
Authorities have now ramped up their efforts to protect the sturgeon. There’s been a huge reduction in the number that can be legally poached, to the point where it’s almost impossible to get your hands on wild-caught caviar, and imports and exports are closely monitored by most countries.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to stop illegal poaching completely. Remember, sturgeons are practically goldmines – this creates a vicious cycle as their scarcity and high value gives poachers an incentive to take part in this harmful trade. And overfishing isn’t the only reason sturgeon numbers are running low.
The prehistoric fish are also extremely sensitive to the temperature and cleanliness of water– even subtle changes can threaten their survival. And which man-made event has altered water masses all over the globe? Pollution. Water contamination has had a tragic impact on the sturgeon population, including tumors and disease in the vital organs and muscles.
Deformities in eggs have become more common too, which has changed the taste of caviar. As if fleeing poachers and inhabiting a poisoned environment wasn’t enough, dams and the destruction of natural watercourses have made it more difficult for sturgeons to reach their feeding and breeding grounds.
Basically, they’ve had a tough few years. It’s no secret that scarcity brings value. It might sound insensitive to compare animals to commodities, but you don’t exactly need to be an Economics professor to know that supply equals demand. When there’s less caviar to go around, you have to pay above the odds to get your hands on some.
But even if sturgeons weren’t on the verge of going extinct, high-quality caviar would still be unlikely to come cheap. This elusive species is also extremely complicated to farm. Remember, sturgeons take between eight and twenty years to be able to produce eggs – that’s a lot of time to be waiting around and continually feeding a fish.
Why Is Caviar So Expensive?
Knowing when the sturgeons are going to produce their roe isn’t an exact science either, especially if you want to be sure the eggs are in perfect condition. There’s no magic formula saying delicious eggs will be ready the minute a sturgeon turns ten years, two months, and five days old. Instead, farmers must carry out regular autopsies over the course of various years.
It’s not exactly a cheap and easy job. Of course, only female sturgeons can actually produce eggs – but there’s no way to tell males and females apart until they’re a few years old. Even then, the only way to differentiate is by carrying out a body scan. Nobody wants to risk forgetting a sturgeon’s gender after all that hassle!
So, four tanks are needed: one for growing; one for breeding; one for females, and one for males. When the female sturgeons have finally grown their much-anticipated roe, there are two ways to extract it. In the past, breeders always killed the sturgeons to get the eggs out.
This is still a common practice, but a new method called stripping is beginning to gain popularity, in which sturgeons are injected with hormones to ease out their eggs. Both are expensive processes. Considering a sturgeon can live up to one hundred years, killing it when it’s reached less than a fifth of its potential lifespan can certainly be seen wasteful, ethics aside.
But paying for hormone injections to get the eggs out is expensive too. So, just to recap, farming sturgeons involve: caring for a fish for years until its gender is identified; monitoring female sturgeons constantly for at least eight years to check the status of their eggs, and ensuring the water is a perfect temperature and the sturgeons are happy, healthy, and stress-free.
It’s a tall order just to get a few eggs! The roe is harvested by hand, separated gently from the membrane without bursting the balls, and it’s then rinsed in cold water. Typically, the eggs are divided into categories depending on their quality. It’s believed that fuller, rounder and lighter-colored eggs have the highest quality and the best taste.
Why Is Caviar So Expensive?
Finally, the perfect amount of sea salt is mixed in, and the caviar is left to mature for around four months. There are some serious costs involved in all of this – years of human labor, sophisticated equipment, and a complicated production process. Now you understand why the cost of caviar is justified, you’re ready to brace just how expensive this delicacy really is.
The cheapest caviar from Costco costs $31 per ounce. To put that into context, the same quantity of Wagyu steak costs around $7. 50, and lobster is an economical $1 per ounce. That already sounds expensive, but realistically you’re likely to be paying a lot more. The price varies widely depending on the species you buy, but expect to pay between $50 to$3,000 per ounce from a respected brand.
Beluga caviar, which is generally revered as the best-tasting type, costs $350 per ounce on average. Even a cheaper alternative, like Siberian caviar, costs $75 per ounce. If you come across something cheaper, you might want to check you’re buying real caviar. Sometimes eggs from other fish, like salmon, are sold as caviar, but ‘true caviar’ always refers to the eggs of a sturgeon.
Prices can reach unbelievable heights. According to the Guinness World Records, the most expensive caviar in the world comes from the Iranian Beluga. Sometimes referred to as ‘black gold’, a single ounce costs $17,000. It might sound ridiculous, but the Iranian Beluga is a rare albino sturgeon that only reaches sexual maturity at the ripe old age of sixty.
The caviar is said to have a smooth, buttery taste and to be the most delicious in the world – but good luck with ever finding that out first-and naturally, you can’t eat caviar in any old way. If you have the audacity to use a spoon made of metal, even silver, it could react with the roe and ruin the taste.
Instead, opt for mother-of-pearl – we all have a mother-of-pearl spoon lying around in our cupboard somewhere, after all. Alternatively, the traditional way of eating caviar is to place it on the skin between your index finger and thumb, then roll the eggs slowly around your mouth. The eggs are supposed to pop in the mouth and release the flavor.
Why Is Caviar So Expensive?
As for serving suggestions, you can either eat caviar on its own or accompany it with neutral foods like potato or cream cheese. So, next time you feel like burning some money you at least know how to do it properly. Sturgeons have been around longer than the dinosaurs, so the rich and famous of the modern-day aren’t the only ones who’ve had the chance to indulge in this luxurious food.
Various pieces of ancient literature contain references to caviar, and some say it could be one of the oldest delicacies in the world. It’s been desired by kings and aristocracy for decades, including the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, and Russian tsars. In fact, it was Russian tsars that first pushed the idea of caviar as a luxury item, after the French began to import the food from them.
But caviar hasn’t always been so expensive. Once upon a time in the nineteenth century, sturgeons were so prolific within North American rivers that roe was thrown away as a waste product onto beaches and streets. It was often served in saloons for free because owners believed that the salty taste would encourage customers to buy more drinks.
So, what’s changed? Before pollution and the destruction of waterways became an issue, conditions allowed surgeons to thrive in their environment despite their challenging biology. This meant they could be caught in the wild instead of farmed, which was cheaper.
And even though people did go fishing for sturgeons, caviar wasn’t internationally sought-after to the extent that overfishing became an issue. Eventually, the proliferation of sturgeons in the areas with a surplus began to be noticed. Entrepreneurs arrived with an interest in exporting the product, which led to the US producing the majority of the world’s caviar in the nineteenth century.
This caused a caviar boom, which eventually led to a shortage in sturgeons and an increase in prices. It’s hard to separate the story of caviar from the tale of environmental destruction at the hands of humans. Sturgeons were going strong for literally hundreds of millions of years, surviving everything from ice ages to meteoroids, until we came along and decided their eggs were a valuable commodity.
It goes to show that caviar isn’t just expensive for being a status symbol. Not only are the species some of the most endangered in the world, but sturgeon farming is extremely labor-intensive and complex. But, on a lighter note, there’s hope for the future. New advances in aqua farming and production technology are making sturgeon farming more efficient and affordable.
For instance, biologists in Wisconsin are helping sturgeons return to spawn in the area, inspiring similar schemes around other rivers around the US. As well as taking the species of the red list, this is likely to reduce consumer prices. So, have hope: maybe one day, you too will be able to taste caviar. – Why Is Caviar So Expensive?