Jamón ibérico de bellota, newly legal for import (at $180 per pound), barely cracks the top five on the pricey foods scale. We checked in with gourmet retailers for the rundown on the world’s most expensive culinary indulgences.
1.Edible gold leaf
Estimated price per pound: $15,000
Like calcium and iron, gold is a mineral that’s safe to eat, although it’s not an essential part of the human diet. It may be pricey by the pound, but a small shaker of 23K gold sprinkles (80 mg) costs only $30 at Fancy Flours in Bozeman, Mont. The store also carries flakes of gold leaf called “petals” – $45 for 150 milligrams – and packs of 25 small sheets of gold leaf for $75.
Store owner Nancy Quist says all three versions sell exceptionally well: Bakers and bartenders use the precious metal to make dazzling treats for holidays and other special occasions. An opera cake, for example, is a traditional layered sponge cake blanketed in chocolate ganache and adorned with crumbled pieces of gold. For elaborate parties, people add gold sprinkles to glasses of Champagne or signature martinis. One customer even used gold leaf to cover an entire Christmas turkey.
“Gold is a very over-the-top decoration,” Quist says. “It’s insanely popular around the Oscars – people use it for drinks and to make Oscar-shaped cookies.”
Estimated price per pound: $6,000 and up
Sensual and mysterious, truffles were thought to be an aphrodisiac by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Their high price is due to their unpredictable growth habits: No one has been able to domesticate them, relying instead on trained dogs and pigs to sniff them out. The mushrooms grow underground near the roots of oak trees. Truffle hunters, known as truffeculteurs, work alone; their proven locations are closely guarded secrets.
White winter truffles, also called Alba truffles after their region of origin, are the priciest, commanding $6,000 to $10,000 per pound (prices vary year-to-year based on availability and quality). Less expensive truffles include white summer truffles and black winter and summer truffles.
Marky’s, a gourmet market in Miami, sells fresh truffles in season; last winter between November and January, the store sold about a pound of white truffles per week.
Says purchasing coordinator Sarah Freedman-Izquierdo, “The people who buy truffles are people who know how to cook with them – people who know food well.” She advises showcasing fresh truffles in simple preparations: “Nothing too complicated, nothing that will mask their flavor.” Try them gently sautéed in oil or butter and served on bread, or eaten raw in a simple salad, she advises.
Estimated price per pound: $1,550 and up
A favorite at New Year’s parties, weddings and other celebrations, caviar is synonymous with luxury. Caviar, or salted fish roe, comes primarily from sturgeon that live in the Caspian Sea; Russia, Kazakhstan, and Iran are all major exporters. Beluga caviar is thought to be the best, and at around $4,000 a pound, the most expensive. However, overfishing has led to the rapid depletion of the beluga sturgeon population. As a result, the U.S. has banned imports of beluga caviar. (Other countries do import beluga caviar, although production is limited by international quotas.)
Osetra caviar, consisting of small, yellow-brown eggs, is the next best option. At Marky’s in Miami, one ounce of golden osetra caviar costs $147. “The best caviar,” explains Mark Zaslavsky, co-owner of Marky’s, “has a very light, buttery taste, and is not too salty. It makes you long for more. And caviar on Russian blini, with a little Champagne – it takes you to heaven.”
Zaslavsky prides himself on selling “the best of everything” at his shop, which also carries high-end olive oils, cheese, escargot, caviar, and foie gras. To him, fine foods are a luxury along the lines of fur coats and diamonds. “Why do people buy expensive food? Why do they buy expensive cars, big houses, jewelry?” he asks. “Because we all want the best.”
Zaslavsky calls caviar “the taste of success” – an addictive pleasure that has seduced him and other devotees to cross legal and ethical bounds. Demand often exceeds supply for legally obtained caviar (roe harvested in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), and in 2005, Marky’s pled guilty and paid a $1 million fine for purchasing illegal caviar from smugglers. As part of the plea agreement, the company implemented a new system of verification to ensure that all of its caviar meets CITES standards.
Estimated price per pound: $1,500 and up
Saffron, the most expensive spice, is usually sold by the gram – just a small cluster of slender red threads in a tiny glass bottle. At the Spice House in Chicago, owners Tom and Patty Erd sell a gram of superior grade saffron for $6.79, and an even finer version, known as coupé grade, for $8.29.
The threads are the stigmas of tiny crocuses, grown primarily in Spain, Iran, Greece and India. Since each flower only has three stigmas, many blossoms are needed to produce even a small amount of spice. It takes an acre of land and hundreds of thousands of flowers to produce one pound of saffron threads.
Saffron, which Patty Erd calls “a classic,” has been a key ingredient in cuisines since ancient times, and it is commonly used to make risotto, bouillabaisse and paella. Fortunately, a little saffron goes a long way and most recipes call for just a pinch.
“There are 200 to 300 threads per gram, and you only need a few threads at a time,” Erd says. “You use it so sparingly that in the long run it’s not much more expensive than any other spice.”
But be careful to invest in quality, advises Vanilla Saffron Imports president Juan San Mames. His San Francisco direct-import business currently offers saffron for $1,162.24 per pound, or $72.95 per ounce, and carefully vets its saffron for compliance with ISO standards. (Yes, the ISO has saffron specifications.) Cheap saffron producers often leave in the tasteless yellow stamens, adding weight and diluting the red stigmas that give the spice its famous taste.
Estimated price per pound: $150 and up
Kobe beef is renowned among carnivores for its rich flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture. You’ll find it at pricey steakhouses and sushi restaurants, and also at some butchers and online retailers, where a four-ounce filet mignon might set you back $50. Kobe beef, also known as “Wagyu,” comes from Wagyu cattle raised in the Hyogo region of Japan. Increasingly, you’ll also find “American Kobe,” a more affordable alternative that is produced by American ranchers raising Wagyu cattle domestically.
Morgan Ranch, in Burwell, Neb., started raising Wagyu in 1992. Co-owner Dan Morgan explains: “Wagyu are genetically selected for eating quality – marbleizing, tenderness, juiciness, and flavor”- as opposed to other characteristics such as hardiness, fast growth, or milk production. He compares Wagyu meat to fine wine: it’s a specialty item for discriminating palates.
Joe Lazzara, owner of Joe’s Butcher Shop in Carmel, Ind., carries both the Japanese and American varities, and a Kobe steak costs about $110 per pound, while a similar cut of American Kobe goes for about half that.
For Lazzara, selling Kobe beef is a mark of prestige. “Carrying Kobe says we’re the kind of purveyor who knows about meat; it gives us credibility. If we’re knowledgeable about Kobe beef, just imagine everything else we must know.”
And once a customer’s purchased a prime cut, how should he cook it? “Carefully,” Lazzara advises. “Sear it at a high temperature, then finish it on low heat. The fat melts and coats the meat with flavor as you cook it.”
6.Civet coffee, aka kopi luwak
Estimated price per pound: $110 and up
This rare coffee has the dubious distinction of being consumed before the customer has even taken a sip. The palm civet, a cat-like animal also called a luwak, ingests fresh coffee cherries but doesn’t digest the beans inside. After the beans pass through the civet’s digestive system, workers collect them and wash them in spring water. Supposedly, the civet’s digestive enzymes make the beans less acidic, improving the coffee’s flavor.
Peter Longo, owner of New York City’s Porto Rico Importing Co., is drawn to all things exotic and novel, so when he first heard about civet coffee, he knew it would be perfect for his store: “It was right up my alley – such an odd and unique thing.” Over the past six months, he’s sold about 12 pounds of civet coffee, mostly in small quantities. He charges $50 for one-eighth of a pound, $90 for a quarter-pound, and $175 for a half-pound; each order is custom-roasted.
Civet coffee may sound bizarre, but it’s not just for the adventurous. “It’s actually mild and smooth, with a piquant aftertaste,” Longo says. “It’s very good, as long as you don’t let your imagination get the better of you.”
Estimated price per pound of beans: $50 and up
Estimated price per gallon of extract: $260 and up
Because of its ubiquity, it’s easy to take vanilla for granted, but plain ol’ vanilla is second only to saffron when it comes to the priciest spices.
Vanilla beans come from a tropical orchid native to Mexico; today, Madagascar and Indonesia are the largest producers. Vanilla is expensive because growing and harvesting it is so labor-intensive, explains Patricia Rain, author of Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flower and owner of The Vanilla.Company, a wholesale vendor. “Each flower is hand-pollinated, and each bean handpicked,” she says. Then, the beans are dried and cured for several months to intensify the flavor. Six of Rain’s vanilla beans cost $14.95; a 4-ounce bottle of extract sells for $8.25.
Artificial vanilla – a synthetic compound derived from coal tar – is significantly cheaper than real vanilla, but it doesn’t have the same robust, nuanced flavor. Rain worries that if consumers become overexposed to the taste of fake vanilla, which is prevelent in processed sweets, they’ll lose sight of how good the real thing is.
“Just like coffee, or chocolate, it’s worth it to get the best,” she says. “If you love the taste of a product, you need to support it; you need to buy the real thing.”
Estimated price per pound: $50
Foie gras – duck or goose liver fattened by force-feeding – has been a delicacy since Roman times, when geese livers, fattened on figs, were doused in milk and honey. Today, geese and ducks are force-fed corn through feeding tubes, a practice that animal-rights activists decry for its cruelty. Ethical concerns haven’t deterred too many foie gras fans, though: In May 2008 the city of Chicago repealed its foie gras ban after only two years.
Guillermo and Junny Gonzalez, originally from El Salvador, apprenticed with French foie gras producers before moving to California in 1985 and establishing Sonoma Artisan Foie Gras. There, they raise ducks for foie gras and other meat (humanely, according to Guillermo Gonzalez) and sell their products wholesale and retail (their retail price for fresh foie gras is $50 a pound).
“There’s nothing else like foie gras,” Guillermo Gonzalez says. “I can’t find words to describe it. It has a unique flavor and silky texture that can’t be replicated.”
The French are the biggest foie gras devotees, but chefs at Asian, American and a variety of “fusion” restaurants have embraced foie gras as a way to make any entrée more indulgent. You’ll find it on top of burgers and steaks, stuffed inside game hens and even made into hot dogs. Traditionally, though, it’s served as an appetizer, with toast and sometimes a little fresh fruit or compote. Serve it with chilled Sauterne.
9.Rare golden tigerfish
Price per pound: $714
In 2007, a restaurant in China bought a rare giant golden tigerfish for $75,000, believing the fish to be an omen of good luck, according to Reuters. The fish, caught off the southern coast of China, was almost six feet long and weighed 105 pounds. The original asking price for the fish was $103,500, but the restaurant was able to strike a bargain – at a price that makes even toro seem cheap.