15. Jan, 2015

The World's Most Expensive Foods

“Money doesn’t make you happy. I am worth $50m now, and I feel just like I felt when I had only $40m.” –Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Have you also wondered what the rich and famous eat? We often see and hear references to $500 hamburgers and dishes wrapped in gold foil, but – perhaps it is so extravagant – most of us plebs couldn’t be bothered to research the diets of the wealthy and what it costs to indulge in the foods they enjoy. I took some time and compiled a list of the 20 most expensive foodstuffs I could find. Suffice it to say, the results left me gobsmacked, and I think it might have the same effect on you!

Please note: I only considered ingredients (e.g. meat or fish) not dishes, and excluded wines, liquors and flavourants like herbs and spices. I wanted to find out more or less what basic foodstuffs cost before they were served. Some of the items on my list are partially processed, for example dried or cured though.

Ranking the Top 20 was well-neigh impossible, because obtaining accurate prices is often not possible because the product in question is not generally traded formally (or, for that matter, even legally!) My list is however reasonably accurate from a relative perspective, i.e. the ranking from least to most expensive.  

 Number 20: North Sea Lobster (UK, Denmark)

 Atlantic Lobster are still relatively plentiful off New England, ironically because the Cod that used to prey on them have been all but wiped out. Not so in the North Sea, where pretty much everything is on the brink of being fished out. As a consequence, authentic North Sea Lobsters (particularly from the wild cold waters off Scotland) now enjoy serious snob value, and live ones retail for up to US$75 per kilo.

Number 19: Wild King Salmon (Canada, NW USA)

 Farmed salmon have become as ubiquitous as battery chickens in supermarkets, but they don’t taste anything like their wild-caught kin, are less rich in fatty acids and there are serious ethical question marks over how they are raised. They are also invariably Atlantic Salmon, which means that King (“Chinook”) Salmon can only be obtained from fishermen. Expect to pay upwards of US$80 per kilo for fresh wild salmon.

Number 18: Orange Roughy (Chile, New Zealand, Namibia)

This medium-sized fish is found in very deep water in the South Atlantic and Pacific. Because of its dark, relatively barren domain, it grows incredibly slowly. A pan-sized specimen can be assumed to be more than 100 years old! Its great taste and scarcity have resulted in a retail price of ca. US$90 per kilo. Experts discourage catching or eating them, though.

Number 17: Coffin Bay King Oysters (Australia)

Found (and now farmed) in a single Australian bay, near Port Lincoln in South Australia, these succulent molluscs can fetch up to US$100 each. This is not as expensive as it sounds, because some can weigh up to a kilo! It takes them six years to reach this size, and nobody has thus far claimed to have swallowed one whole!

Number 16: Wild Red Grouse (Scotland)

Traditionally the preserve of aristocratic landowning hunters and their friends, the famous game bird can now be bought in a few exclusive stores in the UK during the autumn hunting season. A hung and plucked specimen will fetch north of US$100 per kilo, and even more if it is shot soon after the opening of the season. London’s Gentlemen’s Clubs take great pride in serving “new” Grouse to their members.

Number 15: Jamón Iberico de Bellota (Spain)

This air-dried ham is made using the legs of the indigenous  Pata Negra (“Black Foot”) pig, which roams free in high-altitude oak groves (Dehesas) and derives its unique flavour from heavy feeding on the acorns during Autumn. The hams are lightly cured, and then left to dry in the mountain air for a minimum of 2 years.  A 7kg ham wil set you back US$300+ per kilo.

Number 14: Alaskan Red King Crab (USA)

Three species of King Crab are caught off British Columbia, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. The undisputed monarch among them is the Red King Crab, which is only found in Bristol Bay, the Kodiak Archipelago and Norton Sound. These tasty crustaceans are becoming increasingly rare because of overfishing and rising water temperatures. They fetch around US$300 per kilo nowadays. Only the legs (which can be as long as 50 cm) are eaten, and they inspired the well-known “crab sticks” which consist of compressed, coloured Krill.

Number 13: Baby Freshwater Eels (Spain)

One of the most popular Tapas in Spain, baby eels have a fascinating life story. Their parents spend their lives in Spanish rivers, and when they are sexually mature swim downstream to the Atlantic. From there they make their way to the Caribbean, where they spawn and then die. The larval stage of their young  is carried back to Spain by the Gulf Stream. They undergo a metamorphosis when they reach fresh water, and each ascends the river whence their parents came. These elvers are netted, and eaten in a vinaigrette on toasted bread. Unsurprisingly, they have become rare and fetch prices upwards of US$300 per kilo.

Number 12:  Red Bird’s Nests (East Asia)

The legendary Yàn  Wõ (Bird’s Nest) Soup of China and South-East Asia has at its heart the spittle of Martins, a member of the swallow family. When dissolved in water, the nests release a gelatinous substance which thickens and flavours soups and stews. The nests are harvested from cliffs and caves by intrepid gatherers, and the soup made from the dried nests serve important cultural and ceremonial purposes. Oh yes, and they are believed to be good for the libido... Price tag? Around US$320 per kilo for nests of the “common” Nest-Building Swift, but those of the Black-Nest Swift can sell for more than US$1 000 per kilo .

Number 11:  Geoduck Clam (NW USA)

The Geoduck (pronounced “Gooey Duck”) is a denizen of the vast tidal flats of the Pacific North West. It has a distinctly phallic look, consisting of a gonad-like part protruding from a small shell, and a very long stamen-like neck that protrudes from the sand or mud and houses its filter-feeding mechanism.  Although extensively farmed nowadays, the insatiable demand from Eastern consumers has kept prices rising to around US$350 per kilo at present.

Number 10: Kopi Luwak Coffee (Indonesia)

While not strictly speaking a food, the backstory was too good to omit this one. Kopi Luwak (colloquially known as “Cat Poop Coffee”) is the smoothest-tasting – and most expensive – coffee on earth. Sumatran Palm Civet cats eat only the sweetest, tastiest green coffee beans. Their digestive tracts remove the flesh from the beans, and their dung consists largely of whole coffee beans which are then collected, washed and roasted.  The authentic product sells for around US$350 per kilo.

Number 9:  Matsutake Mushrooms (Japan)

The Japanese clearly love their mushrooms. While some species, like Shiitake and Eringi, have been successfully farmed for generations, Matsutake can only be obtained by picking them in the conifer forests in the Northern islands. Less than a metric tonne is harvested per annum, which translates into huge scarcity value and a whopping  US$1 000 per kilo retail price.

Number 8:  Brownshell Abalone (China)

Chinese men seem to have a gigantic, collective chip on their shoulders when it comes to libido. They are prepared to go to any lengths (excuse the pun) to obtain (alleged) aphrodisiacs – rhino horn, sea slugs or abalone etc. Their own abalone population has been nearly wiped out in the process, which has led to poaching syndicates starting to plunder the resources of other countries like Chile and South Africa. The original Chinese variety is still held in highest esteem and fetches upwards of US$1 200 per kilo.

Number 7:  Pule Donkey Milk Cheese (Serbia)

The most expensive cheese in the world hails from the former Yugoslavia, and is made from donkey’s milk. The source is limited: only about 100 jennies of the rare Balkan Donkey landrace, and yields are low – a mare milked three times a day can produce perhaps 1.5l of milk. It then takes about 25l of milk to produce one  kg of Pule.  The cheese is smoked and then matured for at least six months, which leads to a considerable loss in weight. Retail price? Around US$1 400 per kilo.

Number 6:  Fugu (Japan)

The lowly “Blaasoppie” (blowfish), much despised by South African anglers, is the basis of a culinary cult in Japan. The fish is painstakingly skinned and filleted (a false move releases a deadly toxin) by chefs trained for at least three years, who then slice the delicate flesh into shapes that are arranged to form pictures on special Fugu plates.  This high-risk delicacy fetches about US$1 500 per kilo.

Number 5:  Wagyu Ribeye Steak (Japan)

Wagyu beef (the most famous of which is produced in the Kobe Prefecture) is justifiably world-famous. The cattle lead lives of pampered luxury, which includes being fed a Quart of beer per day and regular massages. This regime results in extremely tender meat with a pronounced fat marbling and an exquisite taste. No wonder a kilo of the prized Ribeye cut will set you back US$2 000 per kilo.

Number 4:  Densuke Melon (Japan)

The pitch black Densuke enjoys quasi-religious status in Japan, and only about 650 fruits are produced under strictly controlled conditions on the northern island of Hokkaido every year. Because of their scarcity they are extremely popular as gifts or anniversary presents.  The crisp, red flesh must be very tasty, as a kilo fetches north of US$3 000 per kilo!

Number 3:  O-Toro (Bluefin Tuna) Belly Sashimi (Japan)

Treating a guest to the fatty belly steak of an O-Toro is traditionally viewed as one of the highest compliments; something reserved for aristocracy or revered mentors. The combination of nearly insatiable demand (Japan consumes more than 80% of all Bluefin caught or farmed per annum) and rapidly diminishing stocks of Bluefin Tuna has resulted in skyrocketing prices on the Tokyo market: top quality belly cuts fetch more than US$3 000 per kilo nowadays.

Number 2:  White Alba Truffle (Italy)

These fabled, rare tubers are literally sniffed out by highly-trained dogs in the oak forests of Savoy, Piedmont and the Aosta Valley in North Western Italy in autumn. They are then sold at highly publicised auctions to agents for the restaurant and fine foods industries. If the truffle in question is regarded as top quality, these negociants are happy to pay US$160 for a 30g specimen. In fine food shops it will fetch more than US$200 (i.e. US$6 600 per kilo).

Number 1:  Almas Caviar (Iran)

The decades-long sanctions imposed on Iran has still not extended to one of its exports: the rare pearly-white eggs of a rare species of Caspian Sea sturgeon. Almas is exclusively marketed in the West by a single specialist purveyor in London (no, not Harrod’s!). 250g – housed in an 18-carat gold tin – sells for US$5 500, or US$22 000 per kilo!

And so...

I am a firm believer in the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility, and hence find it difficult to accept that a R500 bottle of wine tastes 5 times better than the R100 one. In a world where more than a billion people don’t get a square meal every day, some of the above makes me deeply uncomfortable. Still, I can’t judge rich people based on how they indulge themselves, because I am not one of them and don’t understand their reality. Food this expensive remains the preserve of Captains of Industry, Eskom executives and Metro Police officers...     

 For a tongue-in-cheek look at the 20 super-expensive foods, watch my video "A Rich Diet..." below.

“The rich must realise that the problem with the poor is that they refuse to starve quietly.” – Prof Sampie Terreblanche.