Who knew so much Petrossian decadence could fit into a diminutive box no larger than a panettone. Nestled between cold packs, five jars of edible jewels from Petrossian Caviar
begged to be unloosed and introduced to a stack of blinis. Yet, in an age of depleted wild sturgeon and general oceanic irresponsibility, I wondered if satisfying a caviar
craving was akin to picnicking on White Spotted Owl
sandwiches or proposing to a lover with conflict diamonds
. Thus, to properly understand and appreciate the goodies, I boned up on Inga Saffron's vast, gritty and noir-esque read, Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World's Most Coveted Delicacy
Unlike some glossy, coffee table tome, this is a behind-the-scenes, sea level perspective of the rise and fall of sturgeon, Caspian politics, and caviar culture. After absorbing the book and the jars of caviar, I also caught up with Petrossian Inc.'s Michel Emery, Director of Sales & Purchasing for the eighty-year-old New York firm, Luxist's 2009 Reader's Choice Award Winner for Best Caviar.
The Row Over Roe
While caviar's allure has been venerated for centuries, its modern rarity stems mainly from an incompatibility of sturgeon biology and human development. Sturgeon are older than the dinosaurs, and the Caspian Sea contains the world's highest concentration of sturgeon because it's more of a salty lake than a sea and these ancient bottom-feeders love the brackish deltas and estuaries. Further, since sturgeon always return to the same place to spawn, many of the twenty-seven species are only found in a single river basin. "If a dam blocks the way to a sturgeon's birthplace," Saffron writes, "it will refuse to spawn."
Yes, nature has given female sturgeon as many as 10 million eggs per cycle, but these slow-moving, easily-caught giants (the largest beluga ever caught weighed over 4,500-lbs and measured 28-ft long) might only produce eggs ten times during its life.
We've squeezed habitats, polluted waters, and hunted them to near extinction à la American buffalo and African elephants, and whereas generations of fishermen on the Caspian used to snag 250 beluga per hour, the catch nowadays yields mostly empty hooks.