Thank you for responding to the recent poll posted on marketmanila.com regarding the most expensive ingredients in the world, and over 1,000 votes were received for the multiple choice question that included saffron, caviar, vanillin, truffles, bird’s nest and foie gras. The correct answer is…
…not so clear at all. However, read on for a range of prices that would apply to top quality versions of each ingredient. This may shock some of you:
Based on your votes, 48% of you felt that saffron was the most expensive ingredient out of that list, and you would be correct that it is the most expensive herb or spice, but probably not the most expensive ingredient overall. The stigmas of a crocus plant, it takes several tens (or hundreds) of thousands of individual pieces to make up a kilo of the stuff. The best saffron comes from Iran, Spain and parts thereabouts and retails for some USD6,000 per kilo, or $6 per gram. I suspect a huge part of that cost is labor driven to collect the darned things. But here is the good news – just 1 gram of saffron is more than enough to flavor a paella or risotto or other dish good for four diners, therefore, just USD1.50 per person doesn’t seem too extravagant after all. Any substitutes for good saffron? None. Yeah, yeah, I have heard of turkish saffron, kasubha, etc. – they are not substitutes, period.
Over 270 votes or 27% of readers voted for truffles as the most expensive ingredient. Frankly, this would probably win based on internet searches on the price of some of the most unusual (read large and white) truffles from Alba, Italy. Even if you ignored charity auctions where generous (or is it crazy?) donors paid up to USD330,000 for a 1.5 kilo white truffle, the average price of good white truffles from Italy last year (prices skyrocketed due to a poor harvest and high demand) was roughly USD40-50 per gram, or $40,000-50,000 per kilo!!! Black truffles and lesser quality other truffles can be had for as little as USD3-5 per gram… and a few grams or so are needed over some perfectly scrambled eggs to give you that hint of funky and pungent truffle flavor, so each serving could run USD10-20, a lot more than saffron. Oh, and look up truffle oils if you are a fan, because so many of them don’t really have any real truffle in them.
Only 12% of you voted for bird’s nest as the most expensive ingredient, hmmm, weren’t you paying attention to a post I did last year on bird’s nests from Northern Palawan? :) While you can buy the bird’s nest of the finest quality (white, not greyish) in Palawan and Manila for say $4,000 a kilo, it can command up to US$8-10,000 at the retail level in Hong Kong and elsewhere. And there is some suggestion that red bird’s nest can cost even more. So at USD8-10 per gram, bird’s nest definitely costs more than saffron per gram, though 4x more folks felt the other way around. I don’t eat bird’s nests as I have a problem robbing cradles and while the texture is unique, I have enough problems with my own saliva to contend with the dried saliva of swiftlets.
Caviar is one of those ingredients that has a very wide price range, so it can confuse. But surprisingly, only 5% of voters felt this might be the most expensive ingredient among those listed. The finest beluga caviar at retail can run USD8,000-10,000 per kilo or USD8-10 per gram, about the same price as bird’s nest and definitely more than saffron. Stay tuned for a post on Iranian caviar in the weeks ahead.
Some very informed souls out there (or lucky guessers) picked vanillin (4% of votes) and yes, it is truly costly, at up to $7-8,000 per kilo or USD7-8 per gram of vanillin or just the seeds of the finest pods from Tahiti or Madagascar. And here i would have to agree, I cannot do without this ingredient. Fine vanilla is world’s apart from fake or synthetic vanilla. And just a smidgen or fraction of a gram is enough to make a creme brulee sing. Or a gram or so would make vanilla ice cream as it should be made. Totally worth it. No real substitutes.
Roughly 3% of you voted for foie gras, and well, that’s just NOT the most expensive ingredient on the list. Very “cheap,” in fact, when compared to the others above, at say 5-10 cents per gram or so. But I like it, so it is definitely something I consume, despite the force-feeding issues associated with the product. After all, if you knew all the bizarre things they do to your chickens in the West, you would re-think some of the foods you consume on a regular basis.
So, in conclusion, based on recent data, truffles is by far the most expensive ingredient (Italy, France). Then it isn’t really clear whether caviar (Iran, Russia, etc.) or bird’s nest (Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, etc.) follows at 2 and 3. Then vanillin (Madagascar, Tahiti, etc.) at 4. Saffron (Iran, Spain, Greece, etc.) at 5. And foie gras (France, China) bringing up the rear at 6. Surprised?