Luxury foods

When I was a kid, visiting grandparents for the weekend (we lived in Cheshire, they in Coventry) was like entering a time warp in many ways.  For these purposes, the one aspect I remember vividly was the highlight of these visits, from adult eyes at any rate: sunday tea, consisting of salad, bread and butter, canned ham and canned salmon, followed by trifle.  This was deemed, if not luxurious then certainly a treat worth savouring.  How quaint and ironic, we may now think.  Granted that times were very different in the mid-to-late 60s and this was a family from upper working class roots, certainly not one acquainted with fine dining, but even so it was not my mother’s idea of a treat.

Strange also to think that some of the foods we now think of as slightly exclusive and reserved largely for those of more refined upbringing were at one time good working class foods.  Our notions of luxury change over time and with the acquisitive nature of our culture.  When they become commodotised, they cease to be luxuries and become everyday foods.

Strangely enough, the likes of cod and haddock, in danger of being fished to extinction in the wild and now farmed too, may soon become expensive luxury items, despite being the staple fresh hot fish supper for many generations.  Conversely, oysters were dirt cheap in Victorian days, often served in steak and oyster pudding, for example.  Even game birds were in common circulation before the days of intensive farming and battery chickens – all meat was deemed equal then.  They may not have had access to Ostrich or any other “exotic” meats, but good daily meals included mutton, a dish that has almost vanished from the British diet.

So what precisely is a “luxury food”?   This top ten list makes for interesting reading:

1. Beluga Caviar [Wikipedia]

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Beluga Caviar is the most expensive food item in the world, costing up to $5,000 per kilogram. Caviar is fish roe (eggs) and this particular brand comes from the Beluga Sturgeon, found mostly in the Caspian sea. It can take up to 20 years for a Beluga Sturgeon to reach its maximum size and they can weigh up to 2 tonnes. The eggs are the largest of the fish eggs used for caviar. Beluga usually ranges from purple to black, the palest being the most expensive. Beluga caviar is generally served on its own on small pieces of toast as it needs no additions of flavour to improve it. If you have not experienced eating caviar, when you bite down each egg pops and releases a slightly salty-fishy flavour.

2. Saffron [Wikipedia]

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Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, reaching prices beyond $2,000 per pound (depending on season). Saffron is the three stigmas and style of the crocus flower. Each stigma and style must be picked by hand and it takes thousands to make a single ounce of the spice. Brightly yellow in colour, the spice is used for colouring and subtle flavouring of food. It has a bitter taste and a hay-like fragrance.

3. White Truffles [Wikipedia]


Truffles are from the underground ascomycetes family (tubers) and are reputed for their high prices. It has an odour similar to deep fried walnuts which is extremely pungent to some people, causing a reeling effect. Interestingly, some people are unable to detect the odour of truffles (which is possibly to their advantage!) The white truffle is the most expensive of the family. They are generally served sliced into extremely thin slivers on top of other food and are frequently suffused in oil for sale as truffle-oil.

4. Kobe Beef [Wikipedia]

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True Kobe Beef (?????) – raised from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle – is produced only in Hy?go Prefecture in Japan. It is bred according to secret, and strict traditions. It is fed on beer and grain and produces meat so tender and fatty that it rivals foie gras in texture. The beef can cost up to $300 per pound. This breed of cow is genetically predisposed to intense marbling, and produces a higher percentage of oleaginous, unsaturated fat than any other breed of cattle known in the world. Another special trick in the production of this meat is daily massages by the human owners. I must confess to being a little envious!

5. Bird’s Nest [Wikipedia]

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The nests in question here are produced by a variety of Swifts, specifically Cave Swifts who produce the nest by spitting a chemical compound that hardens in the air. The nests are considered a delicacy in China and are one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. It is generally served as a soup but can also be used as a sweet. When combined with water, the hard nests take on a gelatinous texture. My own experience of Bird’s nest was in a pudding called Bird’s Nest and Almond soup – the nest was dissolved in almond milk which was served as a sweet soup. The nest tasted musty and had the texture of snot.

6. Fugu [Wikipedia]


Fugu (??) is the Japanese word for pufferfish and is also a Japanese dish prepared from the meat of pufferfish. Pufferfish are deadly and if the fish is prepared incorrectly it can lead to death (in fact there are numerous deaths reported in Japan each year from the consumption of this delicacy). One pinhead of the pufferfish poison is sufficient to kill a full grown adult male human. It has become one of the most celebrated Japanese dishes. In order to prepare the fish for human consumption, a Japanese chef must undergo rigourous training and certification. It is normally prepared in such a way that a tiny amount of poison is left in the fish as the poison gives it a slightly numbing and tingling effect.

7. Foie Gras [Wikipedia]


Second to caviar, foie gras is one of the finest western foods available. It is the liver of ducks (foie gras de canard) or geese (fois gras d’Oie). It is produced by a method called gravage, which is force-feeding of the animal of grain via a tube down the throat. Ducks and Geese have an anatomy that makes this painless. The liver expands to many times the normal size and contains a great deal of fat. The texture of foie gras is very similar to that of butter with a very earthy flavour. Foie gras is generally eaten as a raw pate, but is can be lightly cooked to give it a greater depth of flavour. Unfortunately this delicacy is surrounded by controversy and the sale and consumption is banned in some American cities (such as Chicago). It is freely available in all parts of Europe and the rest of the world.

8. Lobster [Wikipedia]


Lobsters form a large family of marine crustaceans that nets a $1.8 billion for the seafood industry every year. They have a close family relationship with fresh water crayfish. Lobsters live on rocky, sandy, or muddy bottoms from the shoreline to beyond the edge of the continental shelf. They generally live singly in crevices or in burrows under rocks. The most common preparation of lobster is to drop the living creature into a pot of boiling water which kills it very quickly. The flesh is then served with melted butter so as to not overpower the subtle flavour of the meat.

9. matsutake [Wikipedia]


Matsutake (??) is the common name for a group of mushrooms in Japan. They have been an important part of Japanese cuisine for the last 1,000 years. The tradition of mushroom giving persists today in Japan’s corporate world, and a gift of matsutake is considered special and is cherished by those who receive it. The annual harvest of Matsutake in Japan is now less than 1000 tons, and it is partly made up by imports from China, Korea, and Canada; this is due to the difficulty in harvesting the mushrooms. The Japanese Matsutake at the beginning of the season, which is the highest grade, can go up to $2000 per kilogram.

10. Oysters [Wikipedia]


The name oyster is used for a number of different groups of mollusks which grow for the most part in marine or brackish water (water that is saltier than fresh water but not as salty as sea water). The oyster is the root of an idiomatic saying “The world is your oyster”, which means that to achieve something in this world, you have to grab the opportunity. All types of oysters (and, indeed, many other shelled molluscs) can secrete pearls, but those from edible oysters have no market value. Oysters are best served raw in their own juices with a slice of lemon. Oysters have, for many years, been considered an aphrodisiac.

Notable extras: abalone, exotic chocolates, ambergris (this deserves a whole other article), musk (as does this), sea bass, and wild salmon.

Many top restaurants certainly have the opinion that it involves copious amounts of beluga caviarfoie gras and grated white truffles, washed down with vintage champagne,  which in quantity ceases to be any sort of luxury at all.  Many “luxury foods”, it has to be said, are subtle and acquired tastes, and tastes many people, maybe even the majority, will never acquire – caviar for one, though equally olives are a commonplace item a good number of people simple can’t abide.  Many would not eat foie gras on principle, given its method of production, though there is simply nothing to compare with the melt-in-the-mouth tenderness of the fatty liver – even if it has a zillion calories per mouthful. And while we’re on the subject of things people would never be persuaded to eat, attempting Japanese pufferfish, with the risk of fatal poisoning, would not be worth its allegedly delightful flavour!

There must be an element of scarcity to luxury foods, something which can only be afforded or found rarely – a delicacy which appears once in the proverbial blue moon.  This would exclude the likes of lobster and oysters, which are commonly available in supermarkets and fishmongers, and are both farmed (true langoustine are a rarer delicacy these days.)  If you were going to include salmon or sea bass, surely you would only pick line-caught wild fish rather than the farmed variety.

So perhaps luxury is a personal thing.  Maybe we each have our own idea of the most luxurious food and drink?

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