When someone mentions caviar, what comes to mind? For many, it’s an elusive delicacy supposedly enjoyed by the rich and famous. But what is caviar, exactly? And why is it so expensive?

Caviar is fish eggs. That’s it. However, these aren’t eggs from any old fish.

Caviar traces its roots to Russia and Persia, where it was restricted for royalty. Once it was brought to the U.S. in the late 1800’s, it received more of a casual treatment. Saloon owners realized that the saltiness of the caviar prompted more drinking from their customers, so they served it free of charge. Sturgeon were abundant in American waters, so the U.S. became the second largest producer of caviar in the world. By the year 1910, the caviar boom came to a screeching halt – the sturgeon had been overfished nearly to the point of extinction. After that point, the cost skyrocketed.

RELATED: What do you do with caviar?

Some say that real caviar can only come from the Caspian Sea. David Fields, the owner and operator of America’s Best Caviar in Grand Rivers, KY, begs to differ. He says that misconception is like saying that you aren’t American if you aren’t from New York. The real distinction when it comes to caviar is the fish that it comes from.

“The reason it’s caviar is because it’s from a sturgeon or the sturgeon family,” Fields said. Other fish in the sturgeon family are paddlefish and hackleback.

The process of turning sturgeon eggs into caviar is a simple but delicate one. The eggs are extracted from the fish, screened to remove the outer membrane, washed, salted, and dried before they are weighed and packaged for sale or transport. The salt is used to cure the fish eggs and takes them from roe (another term for fish eggs) to caviar.

Batch of caviar drying
Pounds of fish eggs dry in batches before they're packaged as caviar.

The less the eggs are handled, the better the product will be. In the original packaging, the caviar that Fields ships out could cost somewhere between $180 and $200, depending on the fish and the quality of the eggs. Once that caviar is sent to a seller and is repackaged in a fancier container, it could cost up to $350.

So, does caviar taste like fish? Not necessarily. Fields described the flavor of caviar like a cashew with a drop of butter on it – a rich flavor with a creamy texture. Sara Wagner described it as tasting “meaty” or like cheese, so the taste is truly up for interpretation. The key to caviar isn’t in the flavor anyway – it’s in the texture. When you taste the eggs, you should press them to the roof of your mouth with your tongue and, if they’re high quality, they’ll pop.

Hungry for more? Sara Wagner is talking to David Fields about how he went from an athletic director and basketball coach to a caviar connoisseur. Catch the interview here

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