Everything was dangerous in exciting, cruel new Russia. Buying caviar was an exercise in fast talking, glib or nervous. You always made the same jokes (‘caviar emptor’ or, if you remembered the title of a famous Soviet book, ‘the fateful eggs’) as you took a deep breath or two, ready to start.
The traders were short men, always with a gleam of gold in the mouth, always with enormous smiles, and always wearing old suit trousers a couple of sizes too big, leaving a floppy concertina of synthetic greyish fabric around the ankle.
There’d be a couple of them, eyeing you from a corner. They’d have a little table with a lot of pickle jars on it. Big pickle jars, washed and resealed with greaseproof paper and a rubber band. Half-litre jars, and each one packed with dark eggs.
These caviar eggs had no history. There were no labels. You didn’t know which jar contained osyotr, or sevruga, or beluga. Nor could you tell from the colour or size of the eggs. Sometimes they were as black as dye; sometimes they were a pearly grey, or brownish, or greenish (a slightly scary palette of colours). Sometimes they were big. Sometimes they were small. ‘What kinds of caviar are these?’ you’d ask in mid-negotiation, pointing at two or three very different-looking jars. ‘All sevruga!’ or ‘All osyotr!’ the answer always went. ‘Every fish is different!’ Perhaps the experts who wrote the neat descriptions on Western menus, talking about nutty flavour here and big pale eggs there, making each type of caviar sound completely different from the next, had just never seen so much caviar together. Or perhaps you were being sold dud stuff.
A shocked voice in your head kept saying, ‘Just imagine what it would cost to get all that caviar in the West!’ and ‘It’s stolen, you know it’s stolen.’ But it tasted good. And other voice would say, ‘Good for them!’ as you looked at the merry traders, and remembered the taste, and were drawn towards their mischievous thieves’ smiles.
So you’d stride past, looking busy and purposeful and as if you ha better things to do, but slyly checking them out too from the corner of your eye. Then you’d turn back, sloooowly, reluctantly, trying to make your body language say, ‘Oh yes! I almost forgot! Not that getting caviar really matters today … ‘ It was better if there were two of you; more scope for exchanging melodramatically despairing glances, for wrinkling your nose at the price, for beating the salesmen down.
OK-lads-we-do-want-to-try-your-caviar (is-it-good-is-it-fresh?) but-the-price-has-to-be-right. No-ripoffs-OK?
Ksss. Fresh as mountain dew. Expertly prepared. Delicious. We have it for breakfast. Mmm. You wanna try? Try some! Or try this one! Here!
They had cleanish plastic teaspoons or wooden lollipop sticks. They took the paper off all the jars you were interested in, and scooped an egg or two off the top layer of each for you to taste, with a fresh spoon for each jar. You threw them on the ground when you were done. I think they picked them up later and rinsed them for re-use.
The trick, everyone said, was to take a spoon for yourself and delve deep into the jar. You needed to check whether there was a layer of sand, or earth, or pebbles hidden in the middle. So canny buyers pre-empted the salesmen, snatching a spoon and plunging it in to make sure they were getting only caviar. Sometimes there was an undignified scuffle as vendor and purchaser each tried to conduct the sale according to their own rules. But there were no rules. The quickest on the draw always won.
Hmm… Hmmm…Hmm. That one’s not bad (but I’m not sure). What do you want for it?
Kss. Whatever you’re not embarrassed to offer…However much Allah tells you to pay …A fine big jar like this (imploring, beseeching looks, interspersed with more big grins).
You had to haggle and cavil. But it was worth it. In the end you’d pay somewhere between twenty and a hundred dollars for enough caviar to feel sick on for days. As you left the market, you’d hear them pulling the next punter in with a soft ‘Psst.’