When you’re feeling cash-strapped, few gambles are as exhilarating as the foray into the tub of something well past its sell-by date. While many of us disregard the dire date warnings etched into food packaging, the tummy troubling consequences of an edible misjudgement are never far from our thoughts. The decision to sample a neglected bowl of once delicious sludge is often the difference between a good night’s sleep and an evening spent clamped to the toilet. However, whilst some foods are inherently risky, there are others that seem near impervious to old age. In rare cases, these foods can remain edible for extraordinary periods of time. Here are six foods that have truly extreme shelf lives.
As our tastes have evolved over the years, cheddar has gone both literally and metaphorically from strength to strength. As one of the world’s most popular cheeses, huge quantities of the mild, creamy curd are eaten all over the world. However, in 2012, Wisconsin cheesemonger Ed Zahn took the form to new tangy heights when he unveiled the oldest edible cheddar ever produced. At 40 years old, the cheese was described as “barely edible” by Zahn himself, in what can hardly be described as a glowing review. However, “barely” still counts.
Thanks to its high fat content, chocolate has the potential to last for a very long time. Even normal everyday bars can remain edible for years if properly looked after. While most chocolate bar owners lack the willpower to leave bars of delicious candy unwrapped and uneaten, there are even examples of chocolate outlasting people. In 2008, a box of chocolates dating from 1902 was placed in the care of the St Andrews Preservation Trust. Created to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII, these sweets may look slightly desiccated, but there’s no mistaking them for chocolatey treats.
Another key ingredient in the preservation of food and drink is alcohol. Ethanol kills bacteria and microorganisms, meaning that alcoholic drinks have the potential to last for a very long time. Dating from 1727, the oldest drinkable wine in existence is the famous Rudesheimer Apostelwein from Bremen in Germany. So prized is this unique vintage that one bottle will set you back around $200,000. You’ll have to tell the rest of us whether or not it tastes any good.
Anyone who has looked into a lukewarm butter dish and spied a liquefying, rancid stick of yellow mulch probably won’t believe that this is one of the longest lived foods out there. Stored correctly, normal butter can last between 6-9 months, which is still a whole lot longer than most dairy products. However, there is one special variety that makes this look like a flash in the pan. Irish bog butter is made with an ancient technique that has produced a product still edible after nearly 3,000 years marinating in a swamp. Churned, cealed and buried in wooden caskets, bog butter apparently tastes like a strong cheese, according to the brave few who’ve dared to try some.
Of all our store cupboard staples, there is one substance that will almost never go bad, whatever we throw at it. Honey’s acidic and hygroscopic (moisture free) nature makes it near impervious to decay. Scientists at the Smithsonian Institute say that it can remain edible for millenia. Egyptologists have unearthed and sampled honey from the pyramids at Giza, and there have been vats uncovered in Georgia that date from around 4000 BCE. It makes you wonder why they even bother putting an expiry date on at all.
Though honey takes top spot for foods that last a long time if left well alone, special circumstances can help others set unnatural records. In the far north, where layers of thick permafrost have remained unaltered for thousands of years, humanity can occasionally make some extraordinary edible discoveries. Throughout history, there are accounts of explorers coming across and subsequently eating the corpses of long dead ice age animals, including ancient mammoths. Recently, intrepid researchers have eaten 36,000 year old bison flesh and soup made from the marrow of 50,000 year old horse bone. Clearly, any worries about food going off in the freezer are completely unfounded.
We’ve come a long way when it comes to preserving food. Canned fruit and veg as well as freeze dried meats are just a few of the innovations helping our meals last longer than ever before. However, if this list proves anything, it’s that sometimes the very old ways really are the best.