The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Should you buy caviar just for the snob value?
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi writes about the history of caviar, why is it so hard to get good quality caviar today and why you should never buy it only for the snob value.
Most people I know have never eaten caviar. Of those who have tried it, the honest response of the vast majority is: “what is this stuff? Why is it such a big deal? This is rubbish.”
I can empathise with them.
There is the famous story of the young Geoffrey Boycott coming to Bombay in the late Seventies and attending a chi-chi party where caviar was on the buffet. The young Boycott, whose exposure to foods that were not especially popular in Yorkshire was limited, tried the caviar without knowing what it was and exclaimed, “this jam tastes of fish.”
God knows he was right. If the story is accurate (and sadly, most great stories turn out to be apocryphal), then Boycott was served the sort of caviar that Bombay society hostesses would procure from the black market in that era. And yes, it did taste like fish jam.
There are three primary reasons why people don’t like caviar. One: it is not for everyone; many people simply don’t like anything that tastes of the sea. Two: it is an acquired taste even among those who like it. When Shakespeare wrote about “caviar to the general”, he did not mean that we should send a can of caviar to the Chief of Army staff. He meant that most people had not developed a taste for it.
And three: most of the caviar you are likely to be served is crap. Well, all right: expensive crap.
Why is it so bad?
Well, let’s start with a little marine biology. Most fish reproduce by laying eggs. These are usually called roe. Some roe can be popular (the big, pop-pop spheres of salmon roe for example) and some is not particularly tasty.
But the roe of the sturgeon, a large, almost prehistoric, fish, has always been prized in those regions where the sturgeon swims free. In the areas surrounding the Caspian Sea, where there used to be an abundance of sturgeon, the locals extracted the caviar from the fish, added a little salt and ate it. Sturgeon was less common elsewhere in the world but usually, anyone who had access to sturgeon roe, loved it.
In English, we call sturgeon roe, caviar. The Russians who were the earliest major consumers just call it ‘ikra’ a general term that means roe.
The problem with caviar is that, like most seafood products, it tends to go bad over time without refrigeration. So it was only a century or so ago that the Russians were able to send large quantities of caviar to France, once methods of refrigerated transportation had been developed. Even then, the caviar did not always keep its freshness so the ingenious French began serving it with lemon and onion, two strong flavours that made up for any loss in the quality of the caviar. Because it was so expensive they also began serving it with chopped boiled egg whites and other accessories to make each mouthful go further.
The Russians, who had access to fresh caviar, did not bother with the so-called caviar trimmings. They ate it with blinis (buckwheat pancakes) and lots of sour cream. Usually caviar needs to rest on a bed of fat to bring out the flavour. (Butter is fine.)
But how good can refrigerated transportation ever be? The trouble with caviar is that if it is not stored at a cool temperature, it spoils. But if the temperature is too cold, then that spoils it too: the grains lose their texture, the membranes deteriorate and the fish jam that poor old Boycott was supposed to have been served is an inevitable consequence.
As for the Bombay hostesses I talked about, they had a single source: Air India.
Yups. You read that right.
Till the 1990s Air India (like some other international airlines) would serve caviar to first-class passengers.
It was extraordinarily generous with its servings and because many Indian first-class passengers were vegetarians and refused to eat it there was always plenty to go around. Unscrupulous members of cabin crew would do one pass around the cabin with the caviar and finish a single 100 gram can. Then, they would refuse to open the second can and spirit it away.
This stolen caviar found its way to the Bombay black market where the crew would sell it for absurdly low amounts. The guys who bought it would then add a mark-up and sell it to Malabar Hill sophisticates. The problem was that a) the cold chain was broken during the theft. The crew could hardly smuggle it out in a refrigerator and b) the guy they sold it to kept it in his freezer because he was not sure when he would be able to sell it. The socialites who bought caviar from one of the semi-secret locations (a shop in Colaba, for instance) were told to also keep it in their freezers.
By the time the caviar was eventually served, it smelt overly fishy (which good caviar should not) and had turned into jam. But as nobody who ate it actually liked the stuff --- it was just a snob thing --- they kept drowning it in lemon, pilling on the onions and pretending that they were having a great gourmet experience.
So if you tried caviar from those sources in that era and hated it, well, good for you. It only proves that you never fell for all the bullshit snobbery.
But then, a more serious problem occurred. The overwhelming majority of the world’s caviar supply came from the Caspian Sea which was bordered by Iran and the Soviet Union. When the Shah ran Iran, he rigidly controlled surgeon fishing and caviar extraction. When the Ayatollahs took over, they said that they did not like caviar and more or less, prohibited its export.
The Soviet Union, the world’s largest producer of caviar, maintained a government monopoly. Sturgeon could only be fished when they had reached a certain age. There was a limit to how much caviar could be extracted each year. Only one state-run company was authorised to can it. And so on.
Then, the Soviet Union collapsed in the Nineties. The Caspian coast now became the location for several largely lawless independent republics. The control of the caviar trade collapsed. It was a free-for-all with overfishing and caviar extraction on such a massive scale that prices collapsed.
But they ended up overfishing the Caspian. They caught the sturgeons when they were too young and today many sturgeon species are endangered. Russian has banned the export of many kinds of caviar under international pressure and in the other independent republics, there isn’t enough good quality caviar to go around.
There is still a global demand for caviar though and there are large companies that depend on the distribution of caviar. So caviar continues to be sold at prices that are idiotically high. Because caviar is sold in a sealed container and because most people are not regular buyers (the average customer buys it once or twice in his life for a lark or to make a celebration seem more special) the big caviar companies fill their cans with rubbish --- with caviar that would never have been sold in the heyday of the Soviet Union when there was strict quality control.
There is still good quality caviar out there but the caviar suppliers only sell it to big, regular buyers like three star restaurants. The rest of us, who buy it in the shops, are fobbed off with the rubbish.
So if you have paid a huge sum for caviar at an Indian restaurant or hotel and ended up with fish jam, don’t be surprised. That’s what the caviar business has become these days.
Is there a way out?
Well, sort of. When the Soviet Union collapsed, many people set up their own sturgeon hatcheries all around the world and tried to farm the fish. Though it takes years for the sturgeon to get to the age where it lays eggs (caviar), they have waited patiently for that to happen.
So now, you get farmed caviar from a variety of countries. The best known is Aquitaine caviar from France which such chefs as Alain Ducasse prefer to serve rather than the unreliable supplies of Caspian caviar. I have had farmed caviar from America, Uruguay and Belgium. And somebody from a caviar farm in Israel recently got in touch saying that they wanted to know more about the Indian market.
How good was the caviar?
Well, most of it was surprisingly good. None of it was as good as the best wild Caspian caviar. But then, you are about as likely to get a can of great Caspian caviar these days as you are to see a unicorn.
Farmed caviar is not cheap. Yes, it is cheaper than the fantastic prices that the likes of Caviar House or Petrossian charge for wild caviar. But, compared to the old days when wild caviar was just expensive and not ridiculously over-priced, the price of farmed caviar is high.
So any Indian hotel that wants a regular and reliable supply of caviar for high-rollers should serve farmed caviar. I have seen the Maurya do it (I don’t know if it still does) but most Indian hotels will still give you little tins of overpriced fish jam. I guess they realise that nearly all of the people who will pay those prices don’t know enough to know the difference between good caviar and crap.
So, should you buy caviar?
Yes, if a) you are feeling rich, b) you have something to celebrate and c) you know a good supplier (and I don’t know any in India). Otherwise, save your money. If you must, then buy farmed caviar --- at least you won’t get conned.
But never buy caviar only for the snob value. The supplier will laugh all the way to the bank. And you will seem like a sad and pathetic figure who is willing to pay through the nose for rubbish. Better to spend money on good quality food you really enjoy.