Origins: peasant dish
Like many luxuries, caviar began as a peasant dish. Fishing villages caught huge sturgeon as they migrated up Europe's rivers to spawn. Every part of the fish was used, including their bellies full of dark, pearl-like eggs, salted to keep through the winter. Rich in proteins and healthy oils, caviar became an important staple and health tonic in the hardworking peasant’s diet. Caviar became prized as a national dish and comfort food amongst all classes in Eastern Europe where sturgeon thrived.
Caviar in exile
After the Revolution, Russian nobles fled to Paris and brought their taste for caviar with them. Tragic, wealthy exiles consoling themselves with caviar became a staple of elegant dining rooms, and in Paris caviar transformed from a comfort food into something else. A simple dish of salted roe became romance and ruin, glamour and tragedy in gleaming beads.
Caviar’s saveur of tragedy would outlive the twentieth century. When the Soviet Union fell, organized crime slaughtered sturgeon for their eggs without regard for the future. The world began to see something thought impossible in in a place so vast as the Caspian Sea—extinction.
While most simply watched the calamity unfold, a few daring souls set out to do something else long thought impossible—to grow caviar in captivity. Sturgeon don’t bear eggs until seven to ten years of age, and can be twelve feet long by that time. To raise ancient, enormous fish like sturgeon for a decade before knowing if you’ve succeeded or failed was a heroic feat.
But the gamble paid off. While many caviar houses won’t advertise it, most caviar today is from fish raised by humans. Reluctance to disclose origins may be a holdover from the days of fishing, when announcing your fishing spot was unthinkable. But today that secrecy can cover a host of troubles: poor farming practices like pollution, overcrowding, and poor fish health go unknown and unaddressed.
“Wit ought to be a glorious treat like caviar; never spread it about like marmalade” — Noel Coward
Farm to table
Persephone is pleased to offer farm-to-table caviar. Raised sustainably in the United States, Persephone sources solely from farms that meet the following criteria:
-Top craftsmanship to ensure clean, pure caviar of impeccable quality;
Treat and recycle water on-site to eliminate pollution;
Fish have enough space for good health;
No financial or leadership ties to Russian organized crime.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Persephone myth. Her story is much older than most Greek myths, and it says so much about abuse of power in a short tale. As I became involved in the caviar trade as a scientist, thinking about the problems I was working on through the lens of this story helped me keep looking forward when things weren’t going well.
The oldest story we have on Persephone is a song from the time of the Homeric epics. In this earliest version, as king of the gods, Zeus saw it as his right to “give” Persephone as a bride to his brother Hades-- against her will. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, was furious, but she was also very clever. She turned her role as goddess of the harvest against the other gods. Demeter refused to let a single plant grow. As humanity began to starve, the gods had a sobering realization: without humans’ sacrifices, they would starve as well.
Zeus buckled. He ordered his brother Hades to restore Persephone to her home.
Later versions of this story focus on the moment when Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds, turning her journey into a just-so tale explaining the seasons. But the oldest story we have about her paints a very different picture. Persephone’s story is one about the cost of abuses of power; that our fates are linked more than we know; and what can unfold when the powerful refuse to abandon the weak.