The reason why these foods are so expensive is not without merit. It is mostly due to scarcity, time, or labor-intensiveness. If you are so lucky to have tried one of these pricey items, take a moment to think about the long road it had to travel to get to your plate.
Saffron (up to $20/gram)
Saffron is made from the three small stigmas in the saffron flower (Crocus sativus). It is often used in dishes such as paella, bouillabaisse, or risotto. You might have seen in stores how expensive it is for a few tiny threads of saffron. But there is a reason behind this pricey spice. Firstly, the process of hand-picking the flowers is extremely labor-intensive. Workers must be in the field first thing in the morning and have to be very careful to remove the stigmas from the delicate flowers. Secondly, only a small part of the flower is used for spice. In fact, it takes almost 80 000 pounds of flowers to produce just one pound of saffron! If you are looking for a cheaper substitute, you can try turmeric. It has a similar color to saffron, and some producers even use it to adulterate saffron! The flavor, however, won’t be as intense.
Iberian Ham ($4000/leg of ham)
Iberian ham is a Spanish ham produced from the Black Iberian pig. The curing process originally started as a means to preserve meat for the year, as there were no fridges available at the time. The pigs have a lot of fat in their muscle, so when the meat is cured (up to four years!), this fat develops into an intense flavor. The pig’s diet influences its fat composition, so to make this prized ham, the pigs are fed acorns. It contributes antioxidants to the fat, making it more stable during the curing period and contributing to a better flavor. The meat is salted and hanged, leaving it to cure for about 48 months. If you are curious to have a taste of this melt-in-the-mouth ham, you will need to find a specialized delicatessen, or perhaps book a flight to Spain and try it in the country where it comes from!
Wagyu Beef ($400/steak)
Wagyu is the name given to beef produced from Japanese cattle. When it comes to meat, fat equals flavor. The high amount of intramuscular fat (marbling) not only contributes to the tenderness of the meat, it also adds an intense flavor. But fats are not all the same. Most people know that red meat is getting a bad rap for having a high amount of saturated fats. This is what sets Wagyu apart from the rest. It has more monounsaturated fats than other beef and is also lower in cholesterol. Whether it is worth the price tag is all up to the consumer. Some people say it’s worth every cent, while others say they don’t see what the fuss is about. Eventually, your opinion will also be based on how it is cooked. If you do decide to shell out your hard-earned cash, make sure the chef prepares it in the most delicious way possible!
Kopi Luwak (up to $80/cup)
Also known as ‘civet coffee’, Kopi Luwak comes from coffee berries that have been eaten and partially digested by the Asian civet. So essentially, once the civet poops it out, you get the prized coffee berries. Kopi Luwak coffee is somewhat controversial. Many civets are held in captivity, with poor living conditions, and are only fed coffee berries, instead of the varied diet they would have in nature. There is also no way to know for sure whether the coffee you drink is from wild or captive civets, as there are no regulations in place to control this. As with many expensive foods, there’s also a risk of paying for a non-authentic product. Civets in the wild pick out the ripest berries, and this makes for a premium product. But when in captivity, they can eat only the berries that are fed to them, and these might not always be of the best quality. The choice is up to you, but if you do decide to try an extravagant cup of coffee, make sure it is ethically sourced. A clean conscious will make the first sip even better.
White Truffles ($2500/pound)
Truffles are the fruiting bodies of the Ascomycete fungus. Because they grow underground, they’re hard to find, and foragers often use truffle-hunting dogs (or pigs) to find these precious nuggets. They are extremely sensitive to environmental conditions, so it’s difficult to cultivate them successfully. Once they are harvested, they deteriorate quickly, so it’s best to eat it within a few days of removing them from the ground. It’s said that the flavor of white truffles is reminiscent of parmesan, garlic, and chives. The chefs that use them in their cooking say it’s best enjoy as a shaving over fresh pasta or risotto.