In the early summer of 1717 Peter the Great, the ruler of Russia from 1682 to 1725, spent several weeks in and around Paris during a protracted visit to Western Europe. Much of his time was spent at Versailles, the grand royal palace spread out over hundreds of acres outside the French capital, where Peter was negotiating about a possible marriage alliance with King Louis XV of France. There is an anecdote that Peter presented his French counterpart upon his arrival at Versailles with a series of gifts, including some Russian caviar. The French monarch, curious at the delicacy, tried it, and then promptly spat it out onto the carpet of Versailles. France, it appeared, was not yet ready for caviar. And yet flash forward a century and the salt-cured roe of Russia was beginning to become all the rage in the salons of Paris. The taste for caviar had to be acquired and it was most definitely in the course of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that it conquered the continent.
Russia Becomes Part of Europe
Much of this must be viewed in the context of the process whereby Russia gradually became a part of Europe. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when caviar first started arriving into Italy via merchants trading in the Black Sea, Russia was still a very distant land to most people in Western Europe. Little was known about it and very few people had ever been there. As such there was a limited window for Russian products and tastes to penetrate Western and Central Europe. By Peter the Great’s time that had begun to change. First the Russian state had expanded dramatically down the River Volga to the Caspian and Black Seas, as well as westwards to the Baltic Sea, into Belarussia and adjoining territories. This made Russia a major European power, one which had a growing range of diplomatic, trade and military connections with states like England, France and Austria. Peter’s reign was seminal in this process. He was a noted Francophile, one who wanted to transform Russian society to become more like those of Western Europe. He sent ambassadors out to Europe’s capitals, brought European ideas back to his new capital, St Petersburg, to reform Russia through, and generally tried to foster connections of all kinds between Russia and the west. This laid the integral groundwork for the emergence of a consumer market for Russian caviar in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the country’s trade ties with France and other nations expanded dramatically.
Ioannis Varvakis and the Revolutionising of the Caviar Industry
A major part in this process whereby the caviar market expanded so considerably was played by a revolutionary figure in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Ioannis Varvakis was born in the Greek islands near Chios in 1745. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774 he approached the Russian government with an offer. He had a ship named the St Andrew which was loaded with explosives and which he would steer into the Turkish fleet during a naval engagement in return for Russia pressing for Greece to become independent from the Ottoman Empire in return. The Russians accepted and Varvakis duly used his missile ship against the Turks, but when peace terms were agreed between Russia and Turkey in 1774 Greece was left out of the equation. Ruffled by this betrayal, Varvakis, according to the legend that has come down to us, walked all the way from the Mediterranean to St Petersburg and there confronted the Russian ruler, Catherine the Great, about the earlier agreement. Varvakis’s trip was not in vain and he was granted extensive fishing rights in the Caspian Sea and the lower River Volga as well as 1,000 gold roubles in compensation for his service. Encouraged, Varvakis set out for the Caspian Sea where he soon entered the caviar trade after tasting the roe in Astrakhan. But Varvakis was more than a mere trader; he was an innovator too. In the 1780s he developed a new container for storing caviar, one which used the local linden wood and which had the effect of preserving the roe to a far greater extent and also not impairing the taste in any fashion. Varvakis’s design would remain the standard for caviar containers until the development of the slip-tin towards the end of the nineteenth century. Moreover, his business boomed. Caviar was catching on fast across Southern and Western Europe and with Varvakis in prime position to become the number one distributor in Europe he was employing 3,000 people by the end of the 1780s. By that time caviar was becoming a staple of many European courts and a luxury commodity traded extensively in Paris, Rome, Madrid and London. So successful was Varvakis’s business that he was even made a Russian noble. The nineteenth century would see Europe’s appetite for caviar grow to an ever greater extent.
The European Market in the Nineteenth Century
Varvakis’s innovations opened the floodgates for the expansion of the European caviar market in the nineteenth century. By the 1820s numerous prominent Parisian restaurants were serving caviar dishes, while the taste for it was also catching on in London. All of this was facilitated by technological developments in the decades that followed. The advent of the railways in the 1830s and the steamship in the 1840s rapidly decreased transport times and ensured goods from Russia and the Caspian Sea could be shipped to Western Europe more easily and faster. It was in France where this had the greatest impact. By the mid-nineteenth century the market here accounted for a large proportion of European consumption, while approximately 25% of all Russian caviar was being shipped to Western Europe. Caviar spoons and tables became a regular feature of the salons and restaurants of Paris and other cities. It was all a long way from Louis XV’s less than approving reception of the product from Peter the Great back in 1717. Yet as with all success stories triumph came with its own set of problems. By the late nineteenth century overfishing was already beginning to deplete the fisheries of the River Volga and Astrakhan in Russia as European demand skyrocketed. As this occurred Europeans would turn to new sources of roe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America and elsewhere, thus ushering in a new period in the history of caviar.
Vladimir Baranovsky, ‘Russia: A Part of Europe or Apart from Europe?’, in International Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 3, Europe: Where Does It Begin and End? (July, 2000), pp. 443–58.
Caviar: A Global History (Reaktion Books: London, 2010).
Patricia Herlihy, ‘Greek Merchants in Odessa in the Nineteenth Century’, in Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 3/4, Part 1, Eucharisterion: Essays presented to Omeljan Pritsak on his Sixtieth Birthday by his Colleagues and Students (1979–1980), pp. 399–420.
Inga Saffron, Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy (Broadway: New York, 2002).