Caviar was a commodity in demand and for centuries it was appreciated in Europe. The earliest records of caviar can be found in the description of Byzantine commercial expeditions in the waters of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Before the 14th century caviar had not been widely known in Europe, particularly in its western part. When Venetian merchants (intrigued by the writings of Marco Polo’s travels) who fell in love with this delicacy started importing caviar, it quickly translated into fascination and interest in this delicacy which embraced consecutively Italian cities and then the whole of Europe. The decline of the Middle Ages was a time when Europe was open to exotic and new things and for this reason the popularity of caviar grew. An example can be the papal chef who in 1465 in his manuscripts included some recipes for dishes with caviar. Europe appreciated caviar not only in a culinary but also therapeutic sense.
Even though caviar was popular and celebrated in Russia, where it was served on the tables of both the poor and the rich, it took Europeans a long time to discover its sophisticated taste. There is an anecdote about how King Louis XV, when being a teenager, was offered caviar by Tsar Peter the Great and after tasting it he spat it out in disgust. In later years caviar became more popular on French tables which can be proved by the fact that at the end of the reign of Louis XV special tables for serving caviar were introduced.
Tsar Peter I the Great and Empress Catherine II contributed to the dissemination of caviar in Europe. The story of Ioannis Varvakis, a Greek captain, is a good example. During the wars of Russia ruled by Empress Catherine II with Turkey, Varvakis bought a ship with war equipment in order to support Russia. However, before he was able to take part in any battle, Catherine and Turkish sultan made peace. As compensation he received permission for exclusive sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea without taxation. Varvakis realized the potential of the gift only when he tried caviar himself while being in Astrakhan.
The events of the 19th century also contributed to caviar promotion, especially in France. During the Napoleonic Wars, Tsar Alexander sent his troops equipping them not only with weapons but also barrels of caviar in order to popularize the consumption of this Russian delicacy. Many European culinary figures were attracted by caviar and decided to come to Russia to explore the secrets of caviar dishes.
The invention of a steamboat and modern technologies of food storage allowed the whole world to enjoy fresh roe from Russia. Transport became faster. In the era of industrialization society was wealthier and the access to exclusive groceries was wider. The price of caviar increased quickly but it did not frighten wealthy gourmets. Price madness around caviar had a big impact on increasing the attraction of “black gold”. But still all the credit lies with the Russian aristocracy and perhaps, above all, with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. It was the October Revolution that drove the flower of the Russian aristocracy, including famous artists, to Paris. Paradoxically, the Russian Bolshevik revolution allowed the rich to infect salons of European capitals, such as Paris or Berlin, with elaborate extravagances. Sumptuous life of the Russian aristocracy, their numerous excesses and culinary exoticisms fascinated Western industrial magnates, entrepreneurs and the European aristocracy (still being respected and admired). They were fascinated by caviar, considered it to be a distinctive and appealing delicacy that became a regular product at the salon feasts and a symbol of love for luxury and debauchery of wealthy Western Europe. In the early 20th century caviar was already beyond the reach of a working class. As a result, in the 1860s about 25% of Astrakhan caviar ended up on the European market.
Belle Époque brought the luxury also to German palates. Johannes Dieckmann and his son-in-law Johannes Hansen noticed that fishermen who fish in the vicinity of the port of Hamburg threw away the roe of the caught sturgeon as an unnecessary by-product. So they set up a business selling both fish and roe. They started the production of caviar from the fish living in Elbe, mixing the roe with the salt from Luneberg. They got the roe, among others, from the mentioned fishermen. As European restaurants finally appreciated the benefits of caviar, Dieckmann saw this as an opportunity to make a profit. He concluded an agreement with Russia, which made him the most important importer of Astrakhan caviar across Europe.
Unfortunately, the increased interest in caviar in Europe, as it was in Russia, became a threat to the survival of wild sturgeon in the waters of the river Elbe. Dieckemann was well aware of the threat of extinction. The growing demand for caviar, uncontrolled fishing associated with it, and pollution of the rivers forced Dieckmann to explore new areas for fishing. He went to America to seek not only new markets but above all, new sources of wild sturgeon roe.
World War I ended the beautiful era for caviar, both in Russia and in Europe.