For a foodie, few things are more exciting than splashing out on a really top end ingredient. Whether it be an organic, hand-picked mushroom or the most expensive meat that you can find, there are certain foods that indisputably deliver more flavour and quality than their less exclusive counterparts. As any chef will tell you, it is often the quality of the ingredients that separates an average dish from a remarkable one. While all high-calibre produce commands a premium, there are some exceptional items that have become a byword for luxury in the world of food. The host of factors that serve to mark some foods out as luxurious are extremely varied and each can contribute to produce food that is, in its own way, truly extraordinary.
Historically, many of the most luxurious products have been associated with meat. Meat was a mark of status on a dining room table, as for centuries it was comparatively difficult to procure and transport. Though our relationship with meat has become less exclusive, there are still some products that retain a decadent mystique. This is due to the variety found within a single animal. Tender cuts such as fillet command a higher price than tougher, less desirable offerings. Even today, fillet is still considered the most luxurious, and therefore most expensive, cut of meat.
For some luxury items, it is not the raw ingredients themselves that result in such extraordinary prices. Around the world, there are a number of unique ways to prepare produce that have been perfected over centuries and result in a singular and irreplicable eating experience. In the Kobe region of Japan, farmers have refined beef production to a fine art. By feeding their cattle on a special diet of wheat and beer, as well as providing regular brushing and massaging, they have produced an intensely marbled beef that is completely unlike anything else available on the market. Rich in thin veins of fat that melt during the cooking process, the texture is almost closer to butter than flesh. The specific technique required to produce this highly desirable effect is the reason that true Kobe beef can fetch up to $300 per pound, making it the world’s most expensive meat.
Luxury is not limited to the world of meat. The most obvious factor that helps give an ingredient such status is scarcity. A prime example are the truffles of Europe. Staples in French, Italian and Spanish cuisine, truffles are either shaved onto dishes or infused into oils to impart a bold, deeply nutty flavour. Extremely hard to cultivate and only successful in specific environmental conditions, truffles are both very rare and highly sought after. As a result, they are among the most expensive ingredients on the planet, and can command a price of up to $2500 dollars per fungus. Both lack of supply and intense demand have contributed to truffles’ undisputed status as a luxury food.
These days, most foods are available all year round. However, for those that remain seasonal, the prices can be extremely high. Probably the most well known example is the Alaskan king crab - found in the northern Pacific. Made famous by The Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, the season for this highly prized ingredient is extremely short - in some places lasting as little as four weeks. This tiny window explains both why king crab commands such a high retail price and why fishermen are willing to risk their lives in treacherous waters to secure them.
As the king crab fisheries prove, danger is a key factor that can contribute to a product’s value. Since some produce is either difficult or impossible to rear domestically, skilled specialists sometimes have to risk their lives for the sake of our stomachs. The mollusc abalone is one such product. Found in waters around the world, abalone is particularly prized in Asia for its sweet, distinctive flesh. Though the sea snails must be picked by hand, in North America, South Africa and New Zealand, where they are most plentiful, it is illegal to fish with scuba gear. As well as the risk of shark attack, abalone fishermen must contend with the significant threat of drowning. Similarly, the highly prized goose barnacles in Northern Spain and Portugal, which can earn fishermen up to $1,000 a day for a good crop, must be picked by hand from wave-battered rocky outcrops, swept by ferociously strong currents in the Atlantic Ocean. The specific skills required to harvest such desirable ingredients explains why they are so highly valued.
A labour-intensive luxury product does not always have to be dangerous to obtain. However, where labour is required, there will always be an increase in price. A great example of this is saffron. A derivative of the stigma and style of the crocus flower, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, worth more than its weight in gold. The reason for this is the extremely time-consuming process required to obtain it. The flowers have to be picked by hand, and it requires thousands of flowers to acquire even a single ounce. Highly prized in both Spanish and haute cuisine, the hours that need to be put into saffron’s production explain how it has come to be so highly valued.
While many of these products can be purchased for cooking and consumption at home, some items are luxurious because there are only a select few individuals qualified to prepare and serve them. The most famous example is the potentially deadly Fugu pufferfish. With internal organs laced with lethal levels of potent neurotoxin, incorrect preparation of the fish almost always results in death. Every year, between 20 to 40 people are killed in Japan as a result of errant knifework. It takes three years of intensive training for Japanese chefs to qualify as licensed to serve Fugu. Because of the scarcity of those capable of serving the prized food, Fugu is among the world’s most expensive luxury items.
All the items that we have discussed can be acquired with either training or dedication. However, there is one contributing factor to a product’s status as a luxury that cannot be taught or replicated. Many of the most valuable ingredients in the world are expensive purely by virtue of the time needed to procure them. Wines, for instance, increase exponentially in value according to their age. However, it’s not just alcohol that requires maturing in order to be a viable product. Beluga caviar is famed as the definitive example of edible luxury. Produced by critically endangered beluga sturgeons, the product is so ludicrously expensive because it takes animals at least 10 years to reach the age at which they can produce the edible eggs. The most expensive form of caviar takes this reliance on age even further - Almas caviar is specifically harvested from albino sturgeons that are over 100 years of age. The rarity of such animals results in a food that costs $25,000 for about two pounds.
For all the varied techniques that yield unique and rare products, perhaps the most significant of all the factors that contribute to our desire for luxury ingredients is psychology. There is something beguiling about the prospect of produce with such storied history. While the specific circumstances required to produce these items mean that they are necessarily expensive, it is our demand for and fascination with them that makes them such a lucrative business. For those who can afford to dabble in the world of delicacies, the offer of such unique produce is certainly irresistible to anyone who likes their food.