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Caviar, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, is a product made from salt-cured fish-eggs of the Acipenseridae family. The roe can be "fresh" (non-pasteurized) or pasteurized, with pasteurization reducing its culinary and economic value.
Traditionally the term caviar refers only to roe from wild sturgeon in the Caspian and Black Seas (Beluga, Ossetra and Sevruga caviars). Depending on the country, caviar may also be used to describe the roe of other fish such as salmon, steelhead trout, trout, lumpfish, whitefish, and other species of sturgeon.
Caviar is considered a delicacy and is eaten as a garnish or a spread.
According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, roe from any fish not belonging to the Acipenseriformes species (including Acipenseridae, or sturgeon sensu stricto, and Polyodontidae or paddlefish) are not caviar, but "substitutes of caviar." This position is also adopted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the United States Customs Service, and France.
The term is also used to describe dishes that are perceived to resemble caviar, such as "eggplant caviar" (made from eggplant or aubergine) and "Texas caviar" (made from black-eyed peas).
The four main types of caviar are Beluga, Sterlet, Ossetra, and Sevruga. The rarest and costliest is from beluga sturgeon that swim in the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Wild caviar production was suspended in Russia between 2008 and 2011 to allow wild stocks to replenish. Azerbaijan and Iran also allow the fishing of sturgeon off their coasts. Beluga caviar is prized for its soft, extremely large (pea-size) eggs. It can range in color from pale silver-gray to black. It is followed by the small golden sterlet caviar which is rare and was once reserved for Russian, Iranian and Austrian royalty. Next in quality is the medium-sized, gray to brownish osetra (ossetra), and the last in the quality ranking is smaller, gray sevruga caviar.
Cheaper alternatives have been developed from the roe of whitefish and the North Atlantic salmon. In the wake of overfishing, the harvest and sale of black caviar was banned in Russia in 2007 but resumed in 2010, limited to 150 kg (330 lbs).
In the early 20th century, Canada and the United States were the major caviar suppliers to Europe; they harvested roe from the lake sturgeon in the North American midwest, and from the Shortnose sturgeon and the Atlantic sturgeon spawning in the rivers of the Eastern coast of the United States. Today the Shortnose sturgeon is rated Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of endangered species and rated Endangered per the Endangered Species Act.
Iranian expertise helped China produce ten tons of farmed caviar in 2013.
Italy is the world's largest producer and exporter of farmed caviar, is also one of the best quality in the world, 25 tons in 2013.
However, the ban on sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea has led to the development of aquaculture as an economically viable means of commercial caviar production. Caviar Court, in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, was established in 2001 and began harvesting caviar in 2007. It produced about five tons per year in 2011 and is building a larger facility in Abu Dhabi hoping to produce 35 tons by 2015. In Spain, a fish farm called Caviar de Riofrio produces organic caviar. In Canada, a sturgeon farm called Target Marine Hatcheries is now the first producer of organic caviar in North America called "Northern Divine".
Over-fishing, smuggling and pollution caused by sewage entry into the Caspian Sea have considerably reduced the sea's sturgeon population.
In September 2005, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service banned the import of Caspian Sea Beluga caviar to protect the endangered Beluga sturgeon; a month later, the ban was extended to include Beluga caviar from the entire Black Sea basin. In January 2006, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) supported an international embargo on caviar export. In January 2007, this ban was partly lifted, allowing the sale of 96 tons of caviar, 15% below the official 2005 level. In July 2010, Russia and some other CIS countries restarted the export of caviar. The 2010 quotas allow for the export of three tons of beluga, 17 tons of sevruga and 27 tons of osetra. In September 2010, Kazakhstan launched a state monopoly brand, Zhaik Balyk, from the Kazakh word for the Ural River. Under the CITES agreement, Kazakhstan was granted the right to produce 13 out of the 80 tons allowed up until February 28, 2011.
Commercial caviar production historically involved stunning the fish and extracting the ovaries. Another method is extracting the caviar surgically (C section) which allows the females to continue producing roe but this method is very painful and stressful for the fish and is illegal in some countries. Other farmers use a process called "stripping", which extracts the caviar from the fish without surgical intervention. A small incision is made along the urogenital muscle when the fish is deemed to be ready to be processed. An ultrasound is used to determine the correct timing. This is the most humane approach towards fish that is presently available but not all farmers use it due to the lack of knowledge in this field.
In Scandinavia and Finland, a cheaper version of caviar is made from mashed and smoked cod roe (smörgåskaviar meaning "sandwich caviar") sold in tubes as a sandwich spread, however this Swedish "Felix Sandwich Caviar" can not be called "Caviar" in Finland. Instead it is called "Felix Roe Paste". When sold outside Scandinavia, the product is referred to as creamed smoked roe or in French as Caviar de Lysekil.
A sturgeon caviar imitation is a black or red coloured lumpsucker caviar sold throughout Europe in small glass jars. A more expensive alternative sold in Sweden and Finland is caviar from the vendace. In Finland caviars from burbot and common whitefish are also sold, however they are not sold as "Caviar", since the word "Caviar" is exclusively reserved for sturgeon roe.
There are also kosher and vegan caviar substitutes made of seaweeds such as Laminaria hyperborea. They closely resemble Beluga Caviar in appearance and are either used as a food prop for television and film, or enjoyed by vegetarians and other people throughout the world.
Given its high price in the West, caviar is associated with luxury and wealth. In Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, caviar is commonly served at holiday feasts, weddings and festive occasions. In Russia, both sturgeon roe (black caviar) and salmon roe (red caviar) are popular.
Sturgeon-derived caviar is not eaten by some Kosher-observant Jews because sturgeon possess ganoid scales instead of the usual ctenoid and cycloid scales (see Kosher seafood). There is a discussion of its status in Halacha, since the scales will come off if soaked in lye; however, this does not apply to every roe-yielding fish species.
The Ja'fari school of jurisprudence that predominates in Twelver Shia Islam also stipulates that seafood must have fins and scales. Thus most observant Twelvers do not eat caviar even though majority Twelver Iran is a primary center of the sturgeon-fishing industry and the world's largest exporter of caviar.
The Caspian Sea had not always been the only source of caviar. Beluga sturgeon were common in the Po river in Italy in the 16th century, and were used to produce caviar.
Cristoforo da Messisbugo in his book "Libro novo nel qual si insegna a far d'ogni sorte di vivanda", Venice, 1564, at page 110, gave us the first recorded recipe in Italy about extraction of the eggs from the roe and caviar preparation "to be consumed fresh or to preserve". The writer and voyager Jérôme Lalande in his book "Voyage en Italie", Paris, 1771, vol. 8 page 269, noted that many sturgeon were caught in the Po delta area in the territory of Ferrara. In 1753 a diplomatic war broke out between the Papal States, governing the Ferrara territory, and the Venice Republic about sturgeon fishing rights in the Po river, the border between the two states. From about 1920 and until 1942 there was a shop in Ferrara, named "Nuta" from the nickname of the owner Benvenuta Ascoli, that processed all the sturgeons caught in the Po river for caviar extraction, using an elaboration of the original Messisbugo recipe, and shipped it to Italy and Europe. The production was sporadically continued by a new owner until 1972, when sturgeon stopped swimming up the Po river.
Caviar is extremely perishable and must be kept refrigerated until consumption. Pasteurized caviar has a slightly different texture. It is less perishable and may not require refrigeration before opening. Pressed caviar is composed of damaged or fragile eggs and can be a combination of several different roes. It is specially treated, salted, and pressed.
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