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A Man Named Varvakis and how Caviar became a World Delicacy

Caviar is a product made from salt-cured fish-eggs of the Acipenseridae family and has been at the top of any ‘to get list’ in aristocratic gatherings from time immemorial. But has anyone ever wondered how it acquired its momentous status? In truth, it was a pirate from Ottoman occupied Greece that made this delicacy commercially available. This is the story of caviar as we know it today:

Varvakis

Born Ioannis Leontides on the Greek island of Psara (west of Chios island just a few kilometers off the coast of Çeme, Turkey), Mr. Varvakis is the man responsible for the popularity of caviar worldwide. Hardly known even in his own country, the tale of this man is as interesting as it is magical. He was born and lived during the Ottoman Empire (when Greece was under Turkish reign).  During that time the Greek natives were not a free people in their country and it was common for those envisioning independence to take up arms as pirates or ‘thieves’.

Ioannis Leontides, as was common the world over, took after his father, who was a skipper, and became involved with the seas.  As a matter of fact, he was just eight when he began to learn navigation and ten when he could shoot a rifle. It was common in those days for the natives who had taken to the mountains, in order to avoid Turkish subjugation, to become thieves and pirates in order to raid their Turkish oppressors.

One such man became Ioannis Leondtides, who was given the name Varvakis by his comrades (meaning wild eyed falcon). At some point in his life, he built a ship, the St. Andrew. This ship he sacrificed in the Russo-Turkish War taking place from 1768-1774 (the Russians wanting to gain territory and passage at sea, the Greeks wanting independence). In the battle of Çeme his ship was turned into a a fire ship, full of combustibles, which he himself set on fire and steered into Turkish ships causing great damage to the enemy.

The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Kuçuk Kainarji, granting Russia the northern part of the Black Sea. Varvakis returned to his island, but the Turks living in Chios (across from Psara) demanded he be arrested and so he was arrested and taken to be imprisoned in Constantinople while trying to flee to Russia. His severed right ear was proof that he had been thrown into the worst prison, Yedi Kule, of the time. With the help of the Russian ambassador, he was released and travelled to Odessa from where he continued on foot 5,000 kilometers to St Petersburg. 

Upon arriving in St Petersburg, six months later, he was in terrible shape. Fortunately for him, he found some Greek-Russians who took him in, fed and clothed him. Varvakis, however, did not travel so many kilometers on foot simply to escape Turkish bondage. He had grander plans; meeting the queen. Arriving at the summer palace of the Tsar, he managed to persuade the courtiers to be heard by Catherine the II (the reigning queen). The queen listened to him carefully and taking his documents asked that they be verified for authenticity.

The next day and after confirmation that this indeed was the man who assisted the Russians in the war as the documents claimed,  he was granted a fishing license and 1,000 Russain Floria (currency of the time). At that he set off for the city of Astrakhan.

Astrakhan the Home of Russian Caviar

Once there, Varvakis soon realized that there was a future in the commercial exploitation of ikra, now commonly known as caviar. Ikra was eaten by the local fishermen and was known for its overall positive effect on the human body, especially in the cold and inhospitable winter climate. The fishermen could not export it in order to take advantage of it through trade due to its sensitivity to preservation. This man, though, knew where there is a will, there is a way and sought answers to this impediment by seeking out experts to resolve the problem.

Once the experts told him what is needed to keep the caviar intact, he had workers dig deep caves in the nearby mountain so that this commodity would be kept intact during the summer months. The caves were cool and could maintain appropriate temperatures to retain the delicacy in its original form. However, he would not settle until he found a way to preserve and export caviar. This benefitted him since at the time Russia sought to redirect trade of the Eastern Indies through the Caspian Sea to Volga and finally Petersburg. A man on a route to recovery of his life, he saw opportunity and thus, through trial and error discovered timber which helped preserve the caviar and he perfected it by making it waterproof.

He soon developed a trade network for caviar which put Russia on the map as the home of this delicacy (due to its being kept in caves, it also became known as ‘cave à havyar’ (havyar is Turkish for fish roe) hence ‘caviar’. While caviar was known since ancient times the world over, it was Varvakis’ foresight and innovative mind that instigated the world trade of caviar  soon becoming a popular delicacy of the aristocracy.

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