Where Does Osetra Caviar Come From?
True Osetra caviar is a widely popular cured fish roe made from the eggs of one specific species of fish: Acipenser Gueldenstaedtii a.k.a. The Russian Sturgeon. Also known as the Danube sturgeon, Diamond sturgeon, or more simply "Osetra". They are large, slow-growing, long-living fish with fascinating traits that have helped keep their species surviving for millions of years. These prized sturgeon are among the top caviar producing species of the Acipenseridae family, both throughout history and still to this day!
Because Russian Sturgeon caviar is so coveted, and the term "Osetra" (Ossetra, Osietra, Osectra, Oscietra, or Asetra) comes from the Russian word for sturgeon "ocetp", the spelling of the word has known many variations over time due to resellers all over the world changing it to fit their market. There is no "correct" way to spell it since it's not a direct translation, however, we use the simplified "Osetra" as it seems to be most accepted spelling in the United States.
the name Osetra itself is often not a reliable identifier for roe of the Russian Sturgeon because of terminology ambiguity. Today, with caviar resellers labeling other species like Pacific White Sturgeon (A. transmontanus) as California Osetra and Siberian (A. baerii) as Siberian Osetra, it is easiest to identify the real Osetra from other caviar by looking for the species "Acipenser gueldenstaedtii" on the product listing or container. Nowadays, caviar farms are actually starting to crossbreed Osetra with other highly-regarded species, making for some delicious Osetra hybrids. Just make sure you know if it's pure A. Gueldenstaedtii, the price should correlate. If it's another faster-growing species or crossed with one then the price should be slightly lower.
What makes this fish and its roe so special? Gueldenstaedtii have ideal characteristics for producing quality eggs that are both aesthetically appealing and uniquely flavored. While you can find creamy, buttery profiles in other species of sturgeon, Osetra have a large, firm egg with a distinct "nuttiness" and low salinity, making it melt in your mouth and leave you yearning for another serving.
Description and Physical Characteristics of Russian Sturgeon
Gueldenstaedtii fish are slow-maturing, mid-sized sturgeon with wild specimens reaching about 7 to 8 feet (2.3 meters) in length and 250 lbs (115 KG) in weight; some wild specimens have been reported at over ten feet (3 meters) and 500 lbs (230 KG). Farm-raised gueldenstaedtii are typically smaller than their wild counterparts, averaging about 4 feet (1.25 meters) in length and weighing roughly 100 lbs (115 KG) in captivity.
Russian Sturgeon are typically distinguished from other Acipenser species by their short rounded snout and unique lower lip, as well as their greyish-green skin, pale lateral scales and white belly. Young Russian sturgeon stand-out especially for their beautiful bright white diamond patterns and spikey scutes, which become duller as they grow older.
Life Cycle, Range and Habitat of Russian Sturgeon
Russian sturgeon are slow to grow and mature, and have been known to reach almost 50 years in age in the wild. After being born, it takes about a decade for an Osetra to reach sexual maturity. The species has a generational length of 10-16 years, one of the longest among all fish today, making their caviar more expensive.
Gueldenstaedtii is an andronomous species that spends most of their lives in the sea, venturing into fresh water systems normally just for spawning. Wild distribution occurs naturally throughout the spans of Russian Siberia.
Status of Russian Sturgeon
Acipenser gueldnestaedtii have been revered for hundreds of years for their valuable roe. Osetra caviar (along with Beluga) was one of the preferred delicacies of Czars and other Russian nobility throughout history. Wild populations of Russian sturgeon were put at risk from increased pollution, habitat destruction, overfishing and poaching throughout the late 20th century. Like many other well-known caviar producing sturgeon, the Osetra populations suffered due to the popularity of its roe. Since 2006, Acipenser gueldnestaedtii has been listed as Critically Endangered on the (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Today, the Russian sturgeon is still highly protected in the wild, meaning wild-caught Osetra caviar is not something that you can get in the USA. Luckily for connoisseurs, farming initiatives all over the world have been rapidly grown, helping to restore wild populations and pave the way for sustainable farmed Osetra caviar that tastes just as good as the wild-caught caviar we enjoyed decades ago.