Caviar: an Italian miracle

Not everyone might know that Italy is the second largest producer of caviar in the world. Caviar of such quality, indeed, that even in Russia it is eaten with gusto. It’s even more surprising when you consider that fifty years ago the sturgeon, the fish that gives us caviar, was virtually extinct in Italian waters.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The sturgeon, or rather, some of the 27 known species of sturgeon, used to thrive in Italian rivers. It featured in many an ancient Roman banquet. The fact that caviar is impossible to keep without reliable refrigeration made it the preserve of kings and emperors. The fish itself, meanwhile, was the best thing that could happen to the common people, as one single sturgeon, weighing up to hundreds of kilograms, could feed a family for days. We find images of the fish in ancient mosaics, while Renaissance writings testify to the consumption of caviar.

But the fact is that a combination of ever-more-intensive fishing and ever-worsening water quality led to a decline in Italian sturgeon populations; eventually, it hovered on the brink of dying out altogether. As a fish that likes to breed only in the cleanest waters, the levees and dykes of the modern age had dealt it a fatal blow. Thank heavens that a trout farmer in the Ticino Park rescued the few dozen sturgeon left alive, bred them in captivity, and thereby saved the species. Now, just in Italy’s two largest caviar farms, you can find hundreds of fish from the four or five species suitable for producing caviar, and that’s not all.

The sturgeon has some very strange characteristics. First of all is the fact that it exists at all: it is in essence a living fossil. It doesn’t have a spine so much as a strip of cartilage, and its body is covered in bony scales. For another thing, it grows exceptionally slowly, reaching sexual maturity at around six years old; certain species lay edible roe at 7-8 years old, while the prized Beluga sturgeon doesn’t do so until the age of 18-25. Sturgeons are also extremely choosey: they can’t be raised in densely populated pools, and they need a very particular and plentiful diet. About half of the juveniles are fed until the age of six – when they reach sexual maturity – before being sold to market: this is the fate of almost all the males. The females, meanwhile, will provide two or three kilograms of caviar, not of uniform quality. In any given variety of caviar, there is a classification system that takes all the senses into account.

How do you identify an “excellent” caviar? Firstly, it has to be fresh, with a delicate, enticing, yet distinctive smell. In other words, it shouldn’t smell fishy. It should be soft, almost creamy on the palate. If the eggs “explode” in the mouth, it’s usually a sign that they’ve been pasteurized or preserved too long, making the surface grow hard. The colour of the eggs has no real relevance. Hopefully now we understand why caviar costs such astronomical amounts. We tend to have a very naïve view of fish farming, not taking into account the expenditure on food and care for creatures that start life weighing dozens of kilos and finish it weighing hundreds. In between, the females will live for twenty or twenty-five years, requiring ultra-clean water and a lot of space. It all adds up.

And what about the sturgeon’s flesh? Well, the children can rejoice: it’s boneless. It rarely gets the respect it deserves in the kitchen, though, being treated as just another fish. In fact, the sturgeon should really be treated as a high-quality meat: it should be hung for some time and cooked rare.