There are certain ingredients in the culinary world that go beyond the imagination of regularity and can bedazzle you with their staggering prices and profound taste. Here are a few of them
By: Akanksha Maker
Posted on: June 14, 2019
Gastronomy has evolved into nothing short of a form of art where artists, also known as chefs, painstakingly prepare masterpieces that look, taste and feel magnificent. What strikes a difference between leagues of chefs is their understanding of fine ingredients and how their quality makes all the difference to the final outcome. Of course, in the world of the gastronome, price is quite the differentiator of quality. Whether it’s “Almas” or white gold caviar that costs a whopping $34,500 or the iconic Matsusaka beef that can set you back by $10,000 (for an entire cow that is), there are a few ingredients in the world that are as rare as they are opulent — all while certainly adding that touch of unabashed glamour to the item in play. Here’s a look at a few of them.
Truffle, a subterranean fungus that was honoured at the court of King Francis I of France during the renaissance period, is today one of the most prized ingredients of haute cuisine. Described by French gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin as "the diamond of the kitchen”, truffles make for the signature flavour of many French, Italian and Spanish dishes. You could easily end up shelling hundreds of dollars for truffle in a fine-dining establishment in Paris, and three times the price for white truffle-infused dishes in Italy. In fact, truffles are so high in value that one of the biggest truffles found in half a century — a 1.5 kg specimen that was unearthed in Italian soil in 2017 — fetched a whopping $3,30,000 at an auction held simultaneously in Macau, London and Florence.
While truffles have become a common feature in menus across the world, what differentiates authentic truffle from its knockoffs is its perfume and origin. Genuine truffle — rich in fragrance and flavour — is grown by the combination of European red soil and wet summers. China has successfully begun producing its own (fake) truffle that doesn’t come close to the original in taste but is quite similar in appearance. Owing to this, Chinese truffles are widely sold around the world, packaged as French or Italian truffles. The scarcity of bone fide European truffle has triggered a black market for the ingredient in the continent. Mafias and “truffle-lords” control illegal exports that supply this luxury ingredient at jaw-dropping prices to restaurants around the world.
Chef Bruno of his eponymous restaurant in Provence, France is a true truffle connoisseur that serves only the finest truffle dishes to his elite guests, who wouldn't mind flying down in choppers just for lunch to his sophisticated establishment. His restaurant only serves the finest truffle that costs around $1,000 for a pound, compared to Chinese truffle that’s just $20 for a pound. Chef Bruno deems Chinese truffle as catastrophic and a real threat to this sacred and sophisticated ingredient.
In fact, truffles are so revered in Europe that a small village called Richeranches celebrates the third Sunday of January each year sees as Truffle Mass. Unfortunately, due to climate change, the harvest of truffles is down from 2,00,000 tons about a 100 years ago to a mere 30 tons today — making it one of the most expensive and luxurious food elements in the world. Best way to sample authentic truffle today? Drive to the heart of Provence, 30 minutes from the French Riviera, to Chef Bruno’s restaurant that serves an assortment of truffle-infused dishes which are spread across specialised menus. This includes the black fall tuber uncinatum (scientific name for burgundy truffle) menu, priced at €78.
Speaking of ingredients that cost a fortune, one can’t not mention the stupendous fish eggs that are found in only the most renowned restaurants of the world — caviar. Its etymology comes from the Persian word khag-avar, which translates to roe-generator. Eggs of the sturgeon fish — that are pre-historic distant relatives of the shark — caviar was first consumed by Persians who believed it could enhance the physical strength and endurance of mankind. In the 1920s, the sturgeon fish were so common that caviar was served in salons and fed to pigs. Due to climate change and extreme demand of the fish, the sturgeon has become increasingly rare. Its overexploitation has led to it becoming an endangered species, making caviar an even more luxurious item. Further more, the female sturgeon takes around eight to 20 years to mature for fertilisation, adding to the rarity of these precious fish eggs. Deborah Keane, CEO of California Caviar Company compared it to eating elephant tusk, especially because the caviar trade is now heavily regulated.
The gold standard in caviar comes from a type of sturgeon called Beluga, which is found swimming in the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea and occasionally in the Adriatic Sea. The caviar from this fish is the most expensive type and can easily fetch between $7,000 to $10,000 for a kilogram. Produced only by a rare albino Beluga sturgeon is “Almas”, perhaps the most expensive caviar in the world, priced at an astonishing $34,500 for a kilogram. Very complex and richly nuanced, Almas has a very distinct personality. The white eggs of this fish are obtained from specimens that are more than a 100 years old. As the sturgeon ages, their eggs become more smooth, flavourful and decadent, featuring a spongier texture. Almas is only available in select Caviar House and Prunier stores; sometimes unavailable even, with a waiting list of four years. In Iran, this type of caviar is packaged in a jar of pure gold that only does justice to the most expensive fish eggs in the world.
You can taste some of the finest caviar at The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong’s Almas Caviar Bar. Seating seven, this lounge on level 102 offers a luxurious setting serving an exquisite selection of the world’s finest caviar alongside luxe champagnes and vodkas.
While talking about ingredients that can cause sufficient damage to your bank account, steak aficionados know the worth of a good one. Though it’s common knowledge that some of the best beef in the world comes from the land of the rising sun, Japanese or Wagyu beef, as it is commonly known, is often duplicated. Authentically, Wagyu beef comes from any Japanese breed of cattle. According to rules set out by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association, Kobe beef is Wagyu beef from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle, raised in Japan's Hyōgo Prefecture. It is one of the highest standards in Japanese beef. But many aren’t aware that there is one strata above this, that has some of the most extortionate cuts and is considered by connoisseurs to be the best kind of beef in Japan and the world – the Matsusaka beef.
Matsusaka beef, the meat of Japanese Black cattle reared under strict conditions in the Matsusaka region of Mie in Japan, is known for its high fat content and characteristic marbling taste that melts as soon as it touches your palate. This kind of beef comes exclusively from virgin female cows that bear a higher fat content. The cattle is often hand massaged with shochu, a Japanese spirit (similar to sake) to promote better blood circulation and fed beer to produce fatty marbling so tender it melts upon the touch of a human finger.
Matsusaka beef starts at $500 for a kilogram. If you don’t find that much, how about an entire cow from Matsusaka? A standard Matsusaka will be sold for about $10,000, while the most expensive one was sold in 1989 for $3,92,000. To get a taste of what the hullabaloo is about, head to Wadakin Sukiyaki in Matsusaka, Japan, to indulge in some melt-in-your-mouth, succulent Matsusaka beef that’s prepared on your table on a charcoal-heated iron pot. The beef comes from Wadakin’s company owned farm that provides its cows with the highest level of care to produce high-quality (and rather expensive) meat.
Luxe in the culinary universe is often a misunderstood concept. These ingredients are overpriced with reason, and its real savants understand the value of them. Shunned by many and regarded highly by only a few, only those privileged enough to taste them can justify the price tag they comes with.