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Customer reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars

on 29 August 2003
A reader does not have to have the infatuation with caviar the author has, nor for that matter even have tasted the roe of various fish to enjoy this book. You must have a serious gastronomic love, or perhaps lust, for a given dish to even begin to match the writer's rapturous relationship with a food that persons either love or find impossible to understand. The extreme reactions to the food are easier to classify once you have read how the food is prepared and how much of what is passed off today as various forms of caviar is fraudulent, or worse, likely to make you ill. The days of sturgeon that weigh as much as the car in your driveway are forever gone. What has replaced these mammoth living fossils are a few hapless fish that have survived destructive fishing and pollution, and finally farm-bred fish that are meticulously cared for in massive tanks.
The irony of caviar's longevity is that is was maintained well in to the 20th Century by the worst practitioner of production, The Former Soviet Union. The same persons that could not match wheat production during the time of the Czars, build a car, or produce the correct number of bicycles managed to keep the cash crop of caviar healthy for decades. This food that is largely thought of as Russian has been on tables for centuries and did not find its home in the Caspian Sea until after the sturgeon had been decimated elsewhere. Germany was once a large source and The United States was the foremost producer internationally until the turn of the 20th century, when after a scant 30 years with ruthless efficiency the fish stocks were destroyed here in the US. Another irony is that as the fish are being relegated to farms they once again are finding their homes in California.
Inga Saffron does a wonderful job of explaining the history of the fish and the world as it existed as sturgeon populations waxed and waned. She shares stories of major caviar producing areas on the shores of New Jersey that are so broken down as to not even qualify as ghost towns, nature having reclaimed those areas that once were internationally known. She also shares the roles of scientists who attempt to develop methods to protect fishing stocks, identify smugglers, and keep these fish that were once a plentiful behemoth from becoming extinct. There are also interesting consequences that result from the work of science. Using the same methods to identify the caviar sold in New York City in the 1990's as they use to track smugglers, science documented that one third of the caviar being sold was not what it claimed to be. New Yorkers had a one in three chance of being defrauded.
The same economic incentive that has lead to the near extinction of the sturgeon is what will keep the species alive. What is a new danger for these fish is that they are no longer the most important economic interest in areas of production as they historically were. Where once they were as valuable as gold they know have lost their place to oil. One scientist suggested embryos of the fish be frozen and reintroduced to the planet in a century after the oil has been exhausted.
Hopefully for the benefit of these remarkable creatures caviar will keep its mystique and its cachet. There are no longer artificial market forces to keep the roe rare just as DeBeers keeps diamonds precious by their monopoly. It costs a fortune to produce sturgeon on farms; hopefully people will continue to buy caviar at prices that persons who don't share the author's passion will ever understand.
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on 18 August 2011
As a big fan of esoteric, thematic history after this fashion, I found this to be an interesting read. The book is an account of the history of caviar - how it was first produced, the advances in food preservation that allowed production to be industrialised in Germany and USA, how it was (re)created as a luxury good, what the future of the food might be. It flows as enticingly as the Volga and is very evocatively written - you can almost taste the caviar while reading. Anyone interested in the history of gastronomy, conspicuous consumption, luxury goods, industrial food production or environmentalism, among other things, may find this book interesting. That's because the history of caviar touches on all these areas - one reason why histories of this kind work so well - making it a very interesting topic requiring a thought-provoking account, which this book more than provides.
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