This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Caviar Dreams: The Tastes of Celebration, first released on December 12, 2022. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
BRIAN REBURN: So we can make some anatomical comparisons to ladies. So you can kind of tell when a woman is pregnant by the swelling of her midsection, right? Well, the female sturgeon also have a similar kind of swell to their midsection. They get kind of bullet shaped or missile shaped. They get kind of stocky and sturdy, and then their bellies have some give on them.
REBURN: So when I was talking about the belly feel, that’s that feel.
NICOLA TWILLEY: We’re feeling two kilos of caviar right here.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I never expected to touch a single fish belly filled with eggs that are worth about four or five thousand dollars. But that’s what Nicky and I were doing.
TWILLEY: Bucket list, baby. That’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to that much caviar—it’s sadly not a regular item on my menu.
GRABER: But this is a season of celebration, and when we celebrate, we often enjoy special, luxurious, and even sometimes kind of expensive treats. Like caviar.
TWILLEY: But why exactly are the little blackish green eggs from a big ugly fish so valuable? And so beloved? Why is caviar the stuff of dreams and legend?
GRABER: And also—why is it so quintessentially Russian? These ancient dinosaur-like fish can be found in waters around the world, so why do we think of czars and Russian princesses and cossacks when we think of caviar? What’s the connection?
TWILLEY: All that this episode plus Cynthia and I add a new skill to our resumes: giving a sturgeon an ultrasound.
GRABER: And we tell the forgotten story of the American caviar boom, and the town named Caviar, New Jersey.
TWILLEY: This is the first in a two-part mini series all about the most celebratory foods—and drinks. The ones we turn to to mark an occasion. Stay tuned for bubbly beverages next: as Robin Leach would say on that 80s gem, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous…
ROBIN LEACH: And I’m Robin Leach with those champagne wishes, and caviar dreams.
DIONNE WARWICK: [SINGING] And it’s champagne wishes, and caviar dreams…
GRABER: This might sound kind of funny coming out of a song about caviar and champagne, but not only is it the season for celebration, it’s also the season for giving.
TWILLEY: We rely on listener support to make Gastropod—it’s an essential part of our budget to make the show. If you enjoy listening and you want us to keep making new episodes, then please chip in and support us if you can.
GRABER: We provide the show to you all every two weeks all year round for free, but of course it’s not free to make it. You do hear ads on our show, but that’s only part of what it takes to keep the show going. We actually can’t make the show without listener support.
TWILLEY: And that means you! Please donate whatever you can at gastropod dot com slash support or find us on Patreon. And a huge thanks to those of you who do support the show—we are so lucky to have listeners like you.
GRABER: This episode is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understand of Science, Technology, and Economics. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
GRABER: To tell the story of caviar, Nicky and I headed to North Carolina, near the coast.
LIANNE WON-REBURN: My name is Lianne Won-Reburn. And we’re at Marshallberg farm. And my title I guess, is like sales manager. But everybody here does a little bit of everything.
TWILLEY: The Marshallberg Caviar Farm got started in 2008. At least, that’s when they received their first little baby sturgeon. But baby sturgeon don’t have eggs.
WON-REBURN: It takes it takes 10 years for the sturgeon, the female sturgeon to reach its first opportunity for roe. So it’s a long wait.
GRABER: But it’s now fourteen years later, and those sturgeon are up and running. Or swimming. To see them, we followed Lianne into the barn where we met up with Will Brown and Brian Reburn. Brian is both Lianne’s husband and the facility manager.
REBURN: We’re going to ultrasound some sturgeon. These are fish that Will and I selected by hand. We’re going to look into their internal structures to determine whether or not they have good quality caviar for harvest today.
TWILLEY: Will Brown is a fish farmer and a sturgeon ultrasound expert.
WILL BROWN: Yeah. So basically, I’m about to just net a fish and we’ll put it in this floating sling we have here… and calm her down, and then we’ll take a look and see what we get. Yeah. So I’m going to go for this one over here.
GRABER: Oh, there she is down there. Just like hanging out at the bottom.
BROWN: Just got to swim right into the net. Watch out, you might get splashed.
BROWN: So this is probably, probably about a 25 pound fish here. So we’re expecting to get about two kilograms of caviar to one and a half kilograms of caviar out of it.
GRABER: Before he gets the caviar, Will wants to make sure that this fish doesn’t get stressed. Both because it’s not good to have stressed out animals but also for their business because her stress would harm her eggs. But how in the world do you calm down a sturgeon?
BROWN: They actually have similar kind of structures to sharks. They’re called the ampullae of Lorenzini. And they’re like these little receptors on their nose. And if you kind of rub those, they get a little bit overstimulated, basically, and kind of don’t know what to do.
REBURN: We call it tonic immobility.
BROWN: Yeah. So we’ll just kind of gently pat her nose here. Kind of see, see, I’m just yeah, just giving her a little, little pat on the nose here and she’s calming right down.
TWILLEY: We love the sound of tonic immobility so we put some rubbing alcohol on our hands and joined in the nose rubbing fun. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting a sturgeon nose to feel like, but really, it didn’t feel so different from any other part of the fish, except for maybe more conical. It was all just smooth and kind of slippery.
GRABER: The bigger surprise was running our hands along her belly to feel the smooth, taut bulge that Will and Brian told us about. Her stomach wasn’t hard, it had a little give to it, but it felt full.
TWILLEY: Our lady sturgeon was about three or four foot long, and Will had flipped her onto her back so her pale white underbelly was showing. He laid her down in a sling in the water made out of netting hooked onto the side of the pen. And then he gave her an ultrasound.
BROWN: So we’re going to look on our ultrasound here. See those little kind of white dots in there? That’s all caviar in there.
GRABER: It looked like she was full of those little white dots. I mean, I’ve obviously never given a sturgeon an ultrasound before, but it looked pretty good to me.
TWILLEY: It looked pretty good to Will, the actual expert, too. But with something this valuable, you don’t take any chances. So he slipped a biopsy needle into her belly to be sure. That looked like a long hollow metal nail, except when it came out you could see eggs running all down the middle of it.
BROWN: They’re big, so they’re not stacking up in twos in the biopsy. They’re taking up the whole slot here. So that’s good. We’re going to check for firmness a little, make sure they have a nice pop, which they do, if you want to give that a nice little pop there.
TWILLEY: [LAUGHING] Ooh! That popped!
BROWN: And they also have a really nice beautiful color there. So we’re going to go ahead and set this one aside and plan to harvest it in just a moment.
GRABER: By harvest, Will means kill. He took the sturgeon to a room nearby to quickly stun and kill it. When we joined him later, the fish was down on a sterile metal table, Will was in full gown and gloves and hair net, and he sliced the sturgeon’s belly open.
TWILLEY: [LAUGHING] It’s mostly egg!
TWILLEY: Will and Brian were pretty much spot on—like they thought from the ultrasound, our sturgeon had nearly 2 kilos of eggs in there. By the time it was scooped out and cleaned, it was about three and three-quarter pounds of caviar.
BROWN: It’ll retail for several thousand dollars, probably probably close to like 4000, 5000 dollars for this one fish, which is, you know, kind of wild to think about.
GRABER: Completely wild. Until we started working on this episode, I’m not sure I’d ever even tried caviar before, because, well, it’s a little pricey. But Inga Saffron remembers her first time very clearly.
SAFFRON: I was in college, in New York and I was on a date actually, you know, at a small restaurant in the Village. Not particularly fancy, but they did have on the menu, omelets with caviar and sour cream. And I just decided to order it. And it was really just a transporting experience.
TWILLEY: Inga Saffron wrote an excellent book about Caviar called Caviar, The Strange History and Uncertain Future of The World’s Most Coveted Delicacy. She’s a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, she’s their architecture critic nowadays.
GRABER: And like us, and like basically everyone at least we know, she didn’t eat caviar growing up.
SAFFRON: So when I was growing up, I mean, nobody ate caviar. I grew up in a suburban town on Long Island. Nobody had caviar.
TWILLEY: But then Inga started working at the Inquirer, and in the 90s, they sent her to Moscow to be their Russia correspondent,
SAFFRON: I got there in late ‘94, which was three years after the Soviet Union collapsed. Fifteen republics became independent. We used to call it the wild east, because the government was barely functioning. There was no regulation of anything. People weren’t getting paid. It was a very desperate situation for a lot of people. And one way that people in the southern part of Russia near the Caspian sea made money was they started fishing illegally
GRABER: In particular they were fishing for sturgeon. They’d catch fish and make caviar right on the banks of the Volga, and then they’d sell that caviar on to a middleman, and they’d hop on a train and take it straight up to Moscow. They knew the foreigners in town wanted caviar and had some disposable income.
SAFFRON: And at that point we were all required to live in these KGB owned buildings. So they would just, you know, go door to door, literally in these compounds for foreigners and knock on the doors and sell tins of caviar. And I’m talking about kilo-sized tins of caviar.
TWILLEY: Just for reference, the kind of normal, quote-unquote size tin of caviar you might pick up as a super special treat is 30 grams or about an ounce. This was a more than two-pound tin.
SAFFRON: I remember, you know, getting a knock at my office store one day and this, this guy named Magamed who had come up from Astrakhan on the Caspian sea. He had a, you know, big shopping bag. And he just sort of marched into my office, pulled out a kilo tin of caviar and offered me a taste. And it was just incredible. It was, you know, I realized every other time I had eaten caviar, it was junk because this was incredibly fresh and, you know, tasted of the ocean. And I bought, I bought this kilo for, I don’t know, maybe a hundred dollars, which is a totally ridiculous price for a kilo of caviar.
GRABER: And again just for reference, if you go kind of downmarket for caviar today, that hundred bucks will get you the standard ounce-sized tin — Inga was getting 35 ounces, or more than two pounds.
SAFFRON: I had a party afterwards and I had a small child who, I would give it to her for breakfast and my housekeeper would eat some. And you know, when we, you know, we couldn’t finish it, she’d bring it home to her cat.
TWILLEY: Which is just jaw dropping. That cat! The most spoiled cat in the history of time.
GRABER: Cats love to eat fish, so I assume it loved the caviar. But if it were going to go head to head with a sturgeon in the wild, it would 100 percent lose that fight. These fish are huge and ugly and really really strong and they look prehistoric.
SAFFRON: The thing about sturgeon is it’s a very, very old fish in the in the evolutionary charts. It, there were sturgeon at the time of the dinosaurs. And they get very, very big and they’re bottom feeders. They don’t have, like, a big jaw with teeth. They have kind of this blubbery lip, on the underside of their head. And then the thing that really distinguishes them is they have this kind of armor plating. They call them scutes. And they’re very, very sharp. But they do make them kind of ugly. [LAUGHS]
TWILLEY: There are a couple dozen different varieties of sturgeon of varying ugliness dotted around the Northern Hemisphere, but the ones that are famous for their caviar live in neighboring seas—the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, as well the mainly Russian rivers that drain southwards into them. These are the sturgeon species you’ve probably heard of.
SAFFRON: The beluga, which is probably the most famous, and that is an enormous, enormous fish. It can grow to thousands of pounds and it can be, you know, 20 feet long. And it has the biggest eggs, which is why a lot of people like it. Then there’s what’s called the Russian sturgeon. Which has smaller eggs called Osetra. And it’s not as big, but it might be several hundred pounds. And there’s another one that produces Sevruga, which are the smallest eggs. And it’s a smaller fish, smaller eggs. And a lot of people like that the best because it has the most intense briny taste.
GRABER: Even aside from these delicious sturgeon eggs, you can imagine that a fish that weighs hundreds or thousands of pounds would be attractive to catch even just for its meat. I mean, the beluga is the largest freshwater fish on earth. So were they regularly scooped up for dinner?
SAFFRON: You know, it turns out to be rather difficult to catch a sturgeon. I mean, for one thing, they are feeding on the bottom. They’re not, like, the kind of fish you catch with a hook and line, you can’t just throw the hook over and—because they’re not biting. They’re kind of vacuuming up small crustaceans and worms on the bottom of the sea floor. So they’re not biting these, the hooks in the same way that a trout might bite. So that was tricky and, and also they’re very, very big.
GRABER: On top of that, their super sharp armor-like protrusions would just rip apart any net.
TWILLEY: But people were exceedingly keen to get their hands on all that fish, and so, over time they figured out that the best way to catch them was while the sturgeon were zooming up river, determined to reproduce. If you built a wooden weir, like a fence across the river, you could trap them. But then you still had to get them out of the water.
SAFFRON: And they were so big that, you know, in ancient times, people would—they would have an oxen. They tied a rope to the oxen and the rope would be attached and the hook would be attached to the rope. And so when the sturgeon got snagged, you’d have the oxen pull the sturgeon out of the river.
GRABER: A fish that demands like the equivalent of a small tow truck to get it out. What a feast it must have been when you caught it. But then so when did people start eating the eggs?
SAFFRON: When I did my book, I did a lot of research, you know, looking in old Greek texts and histories of the ancient world. And there are lots and lots of mentions of sturgeon meat. Which a lot of people like, especially in, you know, Russia and Greece and that part of the world. But almost no mention of caviar. It’s really remarkable how few mentions there were, outside of Russia, until, you know, maybe, Galileo’s time. So, you know, we think, that there was some knowledge about how to make caviar maybe, 300 AD. Maybe a little earlier.
TWILLEY: You might think, what do you need to know to make caviar? I mean, isn’t caviar just the sturgeon’s eggs? What knowledge is required?
SAFFRON: Basically all it is is, it’s raw eggs with salt. And so that makes it sound really easy. But, you know, it is a little bit of an art to use the right amount of salt, to know when the eggs are fresh, when the eggs are ready.
GRABER: Basically, even though people around the world ate both sturgeon meat and sturgeon eggs, the problem is that they both go bad quickly. The Chinese steeped the eggs in tea, which might have helped preserve them a little. But caviar, this particular recipe for mixing sturgeon roe with salt to preserve the eggs, this is really Russian for a couple of important reasons.
SAFFRON: Both the Black Sea and the Caspian sea are the perfect incubators for sturgeon. There they’re really more like salty lakes. And they have these incredibly productive estuaries. And so, you have the highest diversity of sturgeon and huge numbers. And so that made them available. That was, I guess, the first thing. But then the second thing is that people in that part of the world are largely Orthodox Christians. And in Orthodox Christianity, you were required to abstain from meat. Not just for Lent, for example, but in the olden days in the Russian Orthodox church, there were 200 fasting days. Which is obviously a huge number of days that you don’t get to eat any meat. And so people became big fish eaters.
TWILLEY: For the Russian poor—they might not be able to afford fish meat, but they could have fish eggs. Let them eat caviar!
SAFFRON: You know, it was hard to believe but caviar was originally food for poor people. It was the leftovers.
GRABER: This sounds completely absurd,
TWILLEY: I mean, that is my kind of penance!
GRABER: But that original caviar wasn’t quite the delicacy that it is today. The sturgeon were swimming upriver in a short season, fishermen caught a lot at once, and they didn’t have canning or refrigeration, but they needed to preserve the meat and the eggs.
SAFFRON: So it probably had a lot more salt than caviar has today. Today’s caviar, I guess is about four or five percent of volume. You know, the more salt you put in the longer it lasts. So it would have probably had like 15 percent, let’s say. Another thing that Russians did, they would press the caviar into a kind of cake. It was called payusnaya. And they’d salt it, they’d press it. They’d, you know, squeeze out the liquid and form it into like a little log. Andit could be sliced. So payusnaya, it was like a salami or a block of cheese that they could, you know, just slice off, make a sandwich, call it dinner.
TWILLEY: This proto-caviar sounds like the equivalent of American bologna, a kind of working-class, all-purpose sandwich meat. But it wasn’t just enjoyed by peasants. Russians of all classes liked this caviar log. But only Russians.
GRABER: Caviar wasn’t well known outside of Russia, because even with all that salt, it still didn’t stay good for long. A few people had tried it, but it was so rare that Shakespeare even used caviar when he was calling something super obscure in Hamlet. Hamlet said, “the play, I remember, pleased not the million, ’twas caviar to the general.” Very few people had had the opportunity to even try caviar.
TWILLEY: In the early 1600s, some caviar was making it to Italy, thanks to the Venetians and their trading empire. Galileo who later ran into trouble with the Inquisition for correctly concluding that the earth goes round the sun, he was also a big caviar fan. We know this because in some letters to his daughter, he mentioned it.
SAFFRON: In fact, he sent her some caviar, which arrived completely rotten by the time it got to her. She was in a convent. And, she wrote him back that all the other nuns were totally repulsed.
GRABER: So by Galileo’s time, caviar’s charms had not quite captivated the world. This sounds like a long way from the glamorous dollops on mother-of-pearl spoons that are a sign of luxury today. So what changed? That story, after the break.
TWILLEY: Caviar might just have stayed a Russian staple forever, if it wasn’t for a Greek sea captain called Yannis Varvarkis who fought on the side of the Russians against the Turks in the late 1700s, in a doomed attempt to secure freedom for his homeland. When that didn’t work out, and he ended up losing his ship in the process, he decided to ask Catherine the Great, the czarina of Russia, for some help.
GRABER: He had to walk literally two thousand five hundred miles through Russia to complain to Catherine and explain why she should help him. He happened to run into her lover Gregory Potemkin in a coffee shop, and that helped get him an audience with the czarina, and somehow he was so convincing that she gave him both a purse full of gold florins and the right to unlimited and tax free fishing in the Caspian Sea.
TWILLEY: Like most Europeans, Yannis had never had caviar. But the story goes that one day, he passed a random Russian peasant eating a sticky black substance on bread and the peasant offered him some. And he not only liked it, he thought a lot of his fellow Greeks would too.
SAFFRON: He ended up near Astrakhan, which is the city, this port city on the Caspian. And, you know, he tried to start this fishing business and send the caviar back to Greece, but it would always spoil. And then he discovered that the barrels they were using were very porous and leaked. And that there was a different kind of wood, made from linden trees and lime trees, that were much more solid and more airtight.
GRABER: Those solid, airtight barrels let him store caviar long enough to send it to Europe. That made him a very wealthy man, he was a multi-millionaire and employed three thousand workers and he even had a canal named after him.
TWILLEY: That’s in the late 1700s, and that’s when the caviar export business really got started. But in the 1800s, it took off. Because of my favorite subject, soon to be yours too: refrigeration! First of all people figured out how to store natural ice in ice houses, and then they invented mechanical refrigeration.
GRABER: And also the growth of the railway, don’t forget about that bit of technology too.
TWILLEY: Sure sure, steamships, railway, whatever. The point is, once you could keep caviar cold and move it quickly, there was nothing stopping other Europeans from enjoying this fishy treat.
SAFFRON: And then, you had a lot of wealthy Russians, who wanted to, you know, get out of Russia for the season. Probably the winter season. And they started vacationing in Paris, in the south of France. This is particularly true in the latter part of the 19th century. And they wanted caviar. And other Europeans saw them eating that caviar and it became a huge fad. And sort of the whole belle époque period, with the growth of travel and these luxury hotels and Americans were coming over to Europe, and it was a big party all the time. And caviar was a big part of that.
GRABER: By this point, caviar was no longer pressed into a bologna-like loaf, it was delicate eggs lightly salted and preserved on ice. And it was now fancy.
SAFFRON: So, you know, it was consumed in fancy hotels, like Le Georges Cinq and the Ritz Carlton, and other places like that. And Russians would have vodka with their caviar. But they’re not averse to champagne, which actually they do love a lot. And you know, the bubbles of the champagne and the little bubbly eggs, they just went perfectly together.
TWILLEY: So delightful. And at these delightful meals, people started serving caviar with a lovely little mother of pearl spoon. Because silver spoons would react with the salt and ruin the delicate flavor of the fish eggs.
SAFFRON: So people started developing these rituals for eating the caviar.
GRABER: The mother-of-pearl spoon was one ritual, another one was eating caviar with blini and sour cream. This ritual was born during a time period similar to pre-Lent Mardi Gras, called Maslenitsa.
SAFFRON: Which is, not just one day, but it’s a whole week. It’s butter week. And the goal is to eat as much fat as possible, right before Lent. And so the tradition during Maslenitsa in, in Russia, was to eat these very buttery blinis, with caviar and maybe some sour cream. So the Russians introduced that to Europe.
TWILLEY: All this champagne and mother-of-pearl and buttery blinis—what’s not to love? And wealthy Europeans at the time also really romanticized Russian aristocracy, all the furs and snow and Faberge eggs. Caviar was part of that whole luxurious scene. It became a trend.
GRABER: As we mentioned, there were sturgeon elsewhere in Europe, like in Germany and in England, and so people started fishing them for their caviar. The caviar business really boomed in Germany, and then the Germans wiped their local sturgeons out entirely.
TWILLEY: So then, caviar-hungry Europeans looked further afield. To the US, where there were also sturgeon that had yet to be thoroughly exploited.
SAFFRON: When Europeans arrived in North America, they saw native peoples eating the sturgeon. And as, as I said, the surgeon was incredibly ugly and to the Europeans, these native peoples, you know, they were aghast. They seem barbaric in their eyes. And they wanted nothing to do with these fish.
GRABER: Remember, the earliest colonists showed up before caviar had gotten popular in Europe, plus, they were generally poor and so they wouldn’t have tried it anyway.
SAFFRON: Even when the colonists in Jamestown were starving, they did not want to eat fish. Finally, they were very, very desperate. And they, the sturgeon must’ve been running and they waded into the James river with like pots and pans and tried to catch the sturgeon that way. But, you know, that attitude persisted for a very long time, and farmers along the Delaware, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, if they went out and they caught a sturgeon, they would throw the roe to the pigs,
GRABER: Oof, what a waste. Caviar was even just served as a free bar snack like peanuts might be, it was salty and bar owners hoped it’d make people buy more booze.
TWILLEY: But then in the late 1800s, the Germans who had wiped out their own sturgeon showed up and showed Americans the error of their ways.
SAFFRON: It didn’t really take off until after the Civil War, around 1870, when some Germans, you know, formally started caviar production in south Jersey. Along the Delaware. And then more Germans came and they realized it was a gold mine. And they—almost all of that production that was taking place, between, let’s say 1870 and 1900, was for the export market. Because there was very little American market at that time for caviar.
GRABER: It’s hard to imagine now, but the Delaware was just exploding with caviar business at the time. The center of that boomtown was a place that local fishermen started calling Caviar, New Jersey. It’s now part of the town of Bayside.
SAFFRON: There was a point at which we were exporting more caviar to Europe than Russia was exporting to Europe.
TWILLEY: People were scooping sturgeon out of the Delaware like there was no tomorrow. Which, as it turns out, there wasn’t. At least for the sturgeon.
SAFFRON: It’s an ancient fish, as I said, it’s very inefficient. You know, they might take 20 years to reach adulthood. And then they migrate up river to lay their eggs and to get the eggs, you have to kill them. So, not only don’t they lay their eggs, but you know, that’s one less fish. And so very, very quickly you deplete the stocks. And we saw this happen in Hamburg. In a span of about 30 years from the time that Germans started making local caviar in Hamburg, they virtually depleted the stocks, wiped out the fishery, wiped out the sturgeon. The Germans come to New Jersey and the same exact thing happens. In the span of 30 years, they fished them all out. Once they figured out how to catch them, they were very easy to catch. And there used to be sturgeon up and down the east coast from Savannah to Maine. William Penn, when he arrived in Philadelphia was shocked by how many sturgeon there were. And he feared for the fishermen in the small rowboats, that these huge fish would capsize the boats. But, you know, there was so much money to be made. The fishing was so intense that they were just wiped out in this really short span of time.
GRABER: So the sturgeon were basically wiped out in Germany, they were pretty much wiped out on the east coast of America—
SAFFRON: And then what happened was, you know, the business moved to the west coast. And the pattern was about to be repeated again. And, by this point, people had some understanding of what was going on. And particularly the native peoples on the west coast, who were very much dependent on this fish, lobbied the California state legislature to impose seasonal fishing restrictions. And that’s what saved the white sturgeon in the Pacific.
TWILLEY: Which is a rare and sadly unusual example of enlightenment and there are still some white sturgeon off of California today. At least until climate change kills them all.
GRABER: Thanks Nicky. But I have a question. Once caviar became trendy, we humans quickly and efficiently wiped out sturgeon everywhere we fished them. But so, why hadn’t that happened in Russia?
TWILLEY: Right, because there’s no doubt that Russians were eating quite a bit of caviar for longer than anyone anywhere else. But they had a few tricks to keep the fish stocks reasonably healthy. For one, Inga told us there were some strange superstitions, signs of bad luck that would keep someone from fishing if they were on their way to the river. If they met a priest, if a hare ran across the road, if a stranger asked for money, they would turn ‘round and go home.
GRABER: So that put a lid on the number of fishermen out on the water at any one time. And then also the government enforced some official fishing restrictions.
SAFFRON: During czarist times, there were seasons when you could fish. This is particularly true on the Ural river. You couldn’t start fishing until a certain day. And the season had to end at a certain point. And that would allow some sturgeon to reach their spawning grounds and reproduce.
GRABER: Still, by the late 1800s, early 1900s, the pressure was certainly on, everybody was eating caviar. But then the Russian Revolution and World War I kept Russians occupied and gave the sturgeons a bit of breathing room.
TWILLEY: The Soviets, once they got themselves together post-revolution, realized that caviar was going to be a vital source of cold hard foreign currency, which was otherwise in very short supply. So they had an incentive to protect it.
GRABER: But they also started a huge program of industrialization—they wanted power plants and heavy industry, and so they built dams across all the rivers that the sturgeon liked to swim in.
SAFFRON: Dams keep them from reaching their historic spawning grounds. That’s a huge problem.
TWILLEY: Because sturgeon refuse to spawn if they’re not in the right place. Once the dams were built, hundreds of thousands of sturgeon literally just kept swimming into the walls, banging their heads against them till they died, in a fruitless effort to get home to where they could reproduce. So that was bad. But even the fish whose spawning grounds were accessible because they were lower down the river, beneath the dams, they didn’t have it easy.
SAFFRON: Pollution from runoff, from fertilizer, from construction, damages the spawning grounds. You know, for sturgeon to spawn, they like to lay their eggs on rocks and, and the eggs have to adhere to those rocks to be fertilized. If you have a lot of runoff, it coats the rocks and creates like a cushiony surface. And then the eggs don’t adhere.
GRABER: The Soviets realized they were killing off their cash cow. Literally, female sturgeons are called cows.
SAFFRON: And so they developed a hatchery program where they would actually breed little baby sturgeons in the lab and then release them into the sea. And so they had what’s called a managed fishery, which kept—effectively, kept the sturgeon going.
TWILLEY: So all that glamorous caviar enjoyed by James Bond and other glamorous post-war high society folks, it was on communist life support. Until of course, communism itself ended up on life support. That story, after this break.
GRABER: When we started this episode, Inga was buying kilos of caviar for cheap. Because in the ‘90s, the Soviet Union collapsed so they couldn’t protect the sturgeon anymore, and there was a massive caviar boom.
SAFFRON: Everyone got a taste for caviar. There was so much caviar coming into Europe and the US and, you know, as I said earlier, you know, people who never dreamed of eating caviar were buying it at Macy’s.
GRABER: My friend and Gastropod supporter Carrie told me that her mom in suburban Syracuse used to buy caviar and serve it on toast at her holiday parties. It was special, but it certainly wasn’t out of reach.
TWILLEY: But once you get people in suburban Syracuse eating caviar on the regular, and there’s not a functioning Soviet hatchery program left to refill the rivers, you’re facing a problem.
SAFFRON: So there was all this poaching, all this overfishing. And there was no state government to put the baby sturgeon back into the sea. That’s been really, really terrible for sturgeon populations.
GRABER: One of the places the sturgeons had been safe was the southern edge of the Caspian Sea and the related rivers that spilled into Iran. In Iran, they didn’t have a tradition of eating sturgeon, because Muslims, like Jews, who follow their religion’s dietary restrictions, only eat fish that have scales. And those armored scute-things are not scales.
SAFFRON: So that fishery never really developed in Iran. But, the Ayatollah of Iran saw that it was a potentially lucrative industry. And so a whole bunch of mullahs got together to study the sturgeon to see if it really did or did not have scales. And lo and behold, they discovered, oh, there are a couple of scales.
TWILLEY: Apparently if you look very hard between the fin at the top of the fish and the tail fin, there is a little cluster of scale-like things.
SAFFRON: So they approved sturgeon fishing and the Iranians have been pretty good at managing their fishery. They have the same problem as the Russians. They have dams and they have pollution. But they have been pretty good at running a hatchery program. They do some sturgeon farming. It’s a state-controlled fishery. So that has worked out better for them.
GRABER: But in general, things have not been looking good for these long-living, slow-to-reproduce fish. In the 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 90 percent of beluga sturgeons were wiped out. The fish are endangered today, trade in caviar is supposed to be tightly controlled.
TWILLEY: By the early 2000s, the Macy’s days were over. Caviar was rare again.
SAFFRON: Eventually the price started to go back up. And once the price went up, it became economic to create sturgeon farms, which are like hatcheries, except that you are raising the sturgeon to maturity. And so we’ve seen farms pop up everywhere.
GRABER: Today, there are sturgeon farms producing caviar in Europe and Israel and America, but perhaps unsurprisingly to you listeners, a lot are in China.
WON-REBURN: Well, about 80% of the caviar in the world is made by China. And about the same amount consumed in the US comes from China.
TWILLEY: Lianne at Marshallberg Farm told us that sturgeon farmers in China operate a little differently from sturgeon farmers in North Carolina.
WON-REBURN: In China, you can use antibiotics and hormones in aquaculture for food production. But here we’re not allowed.
GRABER: In China, sturgeon farmers inject the animals with hormones to make it easier to get the eggs out. But that affects not just the animals but also the quality of the eggs.
WON-REBURN: When you give them the hormone injection, it tends to produce caviar that’s more viscous and softer. And that’s also another reason why most caviar that comes from China has something called borax in it. It’s a hardening agent. These are things we can’t do here.
TWILLEY: Borax is a preservative that was banned in the US, it was one of the first chemicals studied by Harvey Washington Wiley and his Poison Squad, which we made an episode all about.
GRABER: And these hormones and preservatives are on top of all the pollution that fish farms cause—China doesn’t have a great record when it comes to overseeing the cleanliness and water use and water discharge from fish farms. It’s a real problem.
TWILLEY: But, like Lianne says, 80 percent of all the caviar eaten in the US comes from China even if it doesn’t necessarily say so on the tin.
GRABER: Lianne says even if the tin says France or Italy, it doesn’t mean it was actually produced there. It’ll say ‘imported,’ and that usually means it was originally farmed in China. It’s kind of like olive oil, the container may say Italy, but that doesn’t mean the olives were grown there.
TWILLEY: Part of why Lianne’s father, IJ Won, originally founded Marshallberg was to see whether he could farm fish on land better—more sustainably.
I.J. WON: I used to be a geophysicist, professor of geophysics at NC State. But this study is my kind of hobby. [LAUGHS] Toward my retirement, you know, a way to save the ocean.
TWILLEY: Fish farms have a bunch of problems associated with them. If they’re in the ocean or lakes—so called open water farms—you get issues with too much fish feces and diseases. If they’re on land, you have to treat the water, and it uses a ton of energy.
GRABER: IJ chose caviar as a way to work out some of the challenges with on-land fish farms because the whole farm set-up is expensive, and obviously caviar can bring in more cash than say, flounder can. And so maybe he’d have enough money coming in to try to refine and perfect on-land fish farms.
TWILLEY: The particular way that IJ thinks is best to raise fish on land is in something called a recirculating aquaculture system or RAS.
WON: It’s very hard way, by the way. Less than probably 1 percent of the so-called farmed fish in the world is probably from RAS.
GRABER: Recirculating means that all the water from all the pens is constantly flowing in and out and being purified, the fish are carefully fed, their waste is carefully cleaned. IJ took us out to take a closer look at the machinery near all the tanks.
WON: Pumps there, pumps 1200 gallons per minute. And it exchanged basically every hour, whole thing. Twenty-four times a day. And that’s most expensive part of the whole operation.
REBURN: We in fact treat more water here on a daily basis than the local town does. And we recycle all of our water. About 95%, it gets recycled on a continuous basis. And 5% gets flushed out into our wastewater treatment systems.
TWILLEY: Brian told us that this system has a lot of environmental benefits over how most fish are raised. Because of the recycling, it uses way way less water, and what water it does flush back out is clean, not filled with fish poo and fish food and other farming runoff. This system keeps the fish healthier too—they don’t get as exposed to diseases or parasites or environmental pollution.
GRABER: And the whole process makes for some really delicious caviar.
TWILLEY: Back in the processing area of the Marshallberg facility, Will was busy turning the raw eggs from our sturgeon into exactly that.
BROWN: Yeah, we’re just separating the eggs from what I like to call the scaffolding, sort of like grapes on a vine. So we’re getting the grapes off basically.
GRABER: Will carefully and delicately released the eggs from the membrane that they were stuck to.
TWILLEY: Looks like you have to be kind of gentle with it.
BROWN: You do, yes. There’s a—there’s also like a lot kind of hidden in there too. So you’ve got to kind of move it around and kind of just see where they are. But after this, we’ll rinse it in a brine solution. So we’ll see some eggshells come up out of the water there, and any sort of imperfections or little blood clots we’ll generally just decant off, and then we’ll rinse it in a brine as well, and just clean everything up. We’ll fine-comb it with tweezers and make sure we got everything out of there. And then you know, basically just salt it and then it’ll be ready to tin.
TWILLEY: Cleaning up caviar is a surprisingly painstaking process. It’s not like just dunking the caviar under the tap. First Will really gently kind of moved the mass of eggs around on top of a sieve-like screen. Then he poured brine over it. And then he got out the medical grade tweezers to pick out any leftover eggshells.
[QUIET CLICKING, SCRAPING]
TWILLEY: Looks good to me!
BROWN: There’s, there’s definitely some skills you pick up doing this.
[QUIET CLICKING, SCRAPING]
TWILLEY: Is that a shell?
BROWN: Yes it is.
TWILLEY: Oh yeah.
BROWN: Got one. Nice.
GRABER: Will weighed the eggs so he could figure out the very exact weight of salt to add to the mixture.
BROWN: This is the exciting part…
GRABER: Then he expertly tossed the eggs in the bowl with the salt, not losing a single one.
BROWN: So we’re just making sure this is all getting nice and evenly incorporated. This is, yeah. This is ready to go in just a minute here and we’ll get you guys a little taste of probably the freshest caviar you’ve ever had.
TWILLEY: I’m not going to say that we have the best job in the world, but when you hand us each a spoon and a mixing bowl full of caviar, it’s hard to argue.
TWILLEY: It’s so good. It’s briny and buttery.
GRABER: And it’s it’s very smooth.
GRABER: I am not going to lie, we basically licked the bowl clean.
TWILLEY: It’s actually really unfortunate, because previously I had not had the chance to really develop a taste for caviar. And now I do.
GRABER: I’m not sure that podcasting is the right gig for a caviar budget, but it certainly was a fun afternoon. But as we kept dipping our spoons back in, we did also wonder: is Marshallberg Farm a success? Are they making money farming caviar in a much more environmentally sensitive fashion than Chinese farms?
WON-REBURN: It’s tricky because it’s really hard to beat their wholesale price, you know. If they can sell a kilo carrier for 250 dollars, and we sell it for say 1000 to 1200. However, we’re making it in a sustainable way.
WON: But have we made money? No. Not yet.
TWILLEY: IJ told us there’s still a way to go, and a lot to figure out. A big part of the cost of this system is just the energy to run those pumps, to treat the water and recirculate it. Which is why they’re now installing solar panels on the barns—that will save money and make their caviar even more sustainable too.
GRABER: Which is why Inga says buying caviar from farms like Marshallberg is a good choice.
SAFFRON: I mean, there are some environmental issues, but, you know, relative to wild caviar, it’s much more sustainable.
GRABER: At least, the farms that are well-regulated, the ones like Marshallberg. But if you don’t know exactly where your caviar is from, it’s likely either from China, or it’s probably poached from the wild. And the sturgeon in the wild are definitely not in great shape.
SAFFRON: There is this international treaty that’s supposed to control sturgeon fishing and control the poachers. But it’s really hard to do. And, you know, there’s so much chaos in that part of the world—the war in Ukraine hasn’t helped for sure. So it’s very difficult to enforce these fishing restrictions. People are desperate to make money. And nobody wants to stop drilling for oil, so the pollution gets worse and worse. People want dams for energy. So, fish are pretty low priority.
GRABER: And sturgeons, like a lot of other creatures, are not adapting well to our warming world, hotter water from climate change is literally killing them.
TWILLEY: Places like Marshallberg aside, Inga doesn’t have a lot of hope for caviar lovers—or really, for the sturgeon—in the future.
SAFFRON: I think it’s going to be hard to save the sturgeon. A lot of species are endangered. The beluga is not supposed to be traded, wild beluga. But I’m sure it is. And I, sadly I think this is the way things are going to go. That as with other varieties of fish, that we are going to fish them out until there are none left.
TWILLEY: Inga said that in the end, sturgeon—they’re just not well suited to our twenty-first century world.
SAFFRON: Somehow this really ponderous, inefficient fish has survived for 250 million years. But our world has changed so much. And when you add in, you know, the globalization of all kinds of products. We have so many foods and plants that really exist only in a small geographic area. They are meant to supply or support a global market. And sturgeon and caviar are just one example of that.
TWILLEY: Inga thinks that caviar should probably never have been a regular treat outside of its homeland. And these days, it can’t be a regular treat even in its homeland.
GRABER: Honestly, caviar also seems like kind of a strange phenomenon to me, because all fish have eggs, and a lot of fish that we enjoy eating also have eggs that are really tasty. And there are a lot more of some of those fish.
SAFFRON: Well, I love salmon roe and the eggs are much, much bigger. And I, I do love the whole pop. And to me, salmon roe tastes like salmon. There’s a salmon-y flavor to the roe, which is very, very different from the taste of sturgeon roe. Trout roe, trout roe is more like salmon roe, but different, the eggs are a little smaller. You can eat roe from any fish at all. We’ve, we’ve sort of mythologized sturgeon roe, but really every fish has roe.
GRABER: Sturgeon eggs just ended up having a really great PR team.
SAFFRON: We associate it with this glamorous life. And it has a great brand as they say. So that’s what people are paying for, but it’s a matter of taste. As I said, I love salmon roe and I feel a lot better about eating it.
TWILLEY: I also like salmon roe. But, you know what, sturgeon roe is undoubtedly delicious. Especially when it’s sustainably produced. But buying sustainably produced caviar means it is going to be and it has to be expensive and rare.
SAFFRON: So yeah. So if you like that taste and you have the money, then why not? But I think it always will be a food of celebration, just because it is so expensive and it’s a ritual, it’s an experience. It’s not, you know, it’s not something you’re going to have for breakfast every day.
GRABER: Before we thank our guests this episode, don’t forget, if you enjoy Gastropod and want to make sure that we’re able to keep making the show in the future, if you can, please donate! At any amount. You can find out more on Patreon or at gastropod.com/support.
TWILLEY: And thank you for helping make sure we can bring you more Gastropod next year! We’re ending this year on a bang, or really more of a pop, with the second in our celebration series out in two weeks. But first, thanks to our guests this episode— Inga Saffron, we have a link to her book on our website, and of course the team at Marshallberg Farm, we have links to their caviar at gastropod.com, too.
GRABER: Thanks as always to our amazing producer Claudia Geib, and, you know, I just really want to listen to Dionne Warwick again…
WARWICK: [SINGING] Full of champagne wishes, and caviar dreams…