How to Get a Taste of the World's Finest Foods for Less
What makes a food gourmet? Scarce foods such as truffles usually make the grade, as do foods that are complex to produce, such as saffron. One common feature shared by just about all luxury foods is their high price. It's possible, though, to find delicious substitutes. Unless you're a die-hard foodie with the gastronomic equivalent of perfect pitch, you may not be able to tell the difference. (You can also add gourmet touches of your own.)
For many people, caviar is the definition of a luxury food. The deep, rich, salty roe harvested from beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea is famous for its flavor and its eye-popping price. While imports to the United States are now banned to protect the endangered sturgeon, its common substitutes are still very expensive. Osetra caviar, from a different kind of Caspian sturgeon, is nearly $250 for a 4-ounce tin. But there are many other kinds of caviar or fish roe to choose from, some of which are highly rated by connoisseurs. Costco sells a Bulgarian sturgeon caviar in a 2-ounce can for about $120, and many reviewers on Amazon like Roland black lumpfish caviar, which is about $30 with shipping for 12 ounces.
Foie gras is made from the liver of specially fattened geese or ducks. It is a luxury both because it is hard to make and because the product is extremely rich — it's about 80 percent fat. Most foie gras is sold in restaurants, but there are numerous online sellers like the Gourmet Food Store, which sells large frozen lobes at $62.50 a pound. A good substitute is a foie gras pâté or mousse, which can be found at many stores for about $17 a half pound.
Truffles are a kind of fungus found mostly in Europe but also in the United States. They come in white and black varieties, grow underground, and are located by special truffle-hunting pigs or dogs. Scraped or shaved onto meats, omelets, soufflés, or other simple dishes, they impart a rich earthy flavor. Scarcity is the reason you'll pay up to $79 for a 1-ounce truffle. Domestic varieties can be found for less: $25 for 1.76 ounces online and typically $12 for 2 ounces at select farmers markets in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest during late fall and early winter.
Wagyu is a Japanese breed of cow, pampered from birth and bred for its distinctive marbling. True Kobe beef is produced from a specific breed Wagyu cows from the Hyogo prefecture, and processed according to the rigid standards of the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Association. In the United States, it can be found in restaurants or stores starting at more than $150 a pound, but it’s much harder to verify the steaks’ authenticity due to lack of regulation. More common are Wagyu cattle raised in America, and while the domestic version still costs upward of $100 a pound, that’s a lot less than the original.
King crab, caught off the coast of Alaska, is succulent, sweet, and expensive. Red King crab is considered the best of all, and the legs are the most desirable part. King crab legs, which can weigh about a pound apiece, come frozen and can be thawed and eaten cold, steamed, or grilled and dipped in melted butter. They cost about $37 a pound on the low end. A highly satisfying alternative is snow crab legs, which are smaller but just as tasty to anyone but a crab-leg fanatic. Large snow crab legs can be had for less than $20 a pound.
Though more common and less expensive than it used to be, lobster is still a luxury food for many diners. If you order lobsters from Maine and have them shipped overnight, they start at $14 a pound plus shipping. The best strategy is to look for them at local supermarkets throughout the year — but especially from June to December — where they’ll be similarly priced but without the exorbitant shipping costs (upward of $50 to the West Coast).
This delicacy comes from western Spain, where black pigs are fed a diet of nothing but acorns. The free-range pigs are fattened slowly, unsullied by other foods or earthly cares. The ham is cured for a long time and has a rich red color and nutty flavor that connoisseurs love. Due largely to the care taken in raising and curing the meat, a full 8- to 10-pound shoulder can go for upward of $500, while a 2.5-ounce package of thinly sliced jamón Ibérico de bellota costs close to $30. A similar product is jamón Ibérico, which comes from pigs with a different diet and curing process but still has a distinctly Spanish flavor. Online it costs $25 for a 4-ounce package.
The most gourmet of gourmet bakers swear by Tahitian vanilla, easily the most expensive kind of vanilla flavoring. Tahitian vanilla pods are fat and moist, their flavor floral and nuanced, and they can cost up to $7 each, or $69 for a pack of 10. The cheaper alternative is a high-quality extract or paste made from 100 percent Tahitian or Madagascar vanilla, which start at about $20 for an 8-ounce bottle.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices. It is made from the hand-picked and dried stigma of a particular kind of crocus that blooms for only a few weeks the year in temperate climates. The stigmata are red in color, with yellow toward the bottom where they attach to the flower. One gram of saffron contains the stigma of about 450 crocuses. The most expensive saffron is usually from Spain, Iran, or India. The good news is that even a little goes a long way, because most recipes call for only a few threads. It will last for years if kept away from heat, light, and humidity. Good quality saffron can cost over $200 an ounce, or you can find some at Costco for about $140 an ounce.
This is the crown jewel of the whisky world. Single malt Scotch must be made from malted (fermented) barley in a single distillery located somewhere within Scotland. One of the most widely admired single malts is the Macallan Sherry Oak 18 Years Old, a rich and smooth Scotch with hints of caramel and spice. Unfortunately for Scotch lovers, it costs more than $250 a bottle. However, part of what you are paying for is the name, and you can experience a similar single malt Scotch for $100, less than half the price, with the GlenDronach Revival Aged 15 Years. It, too, is aged in sherry casks and is rich, spicy, and smoky on the palate.
Also called pine mushrooms, matsutakes are prized, cinnamon-scented fungi that fruit among nettles on the forest floor in Japan and Korea. The most valuable young mushrooms can sell for as high as $1,000 a pound. Comparable varieties of the same genus occur in the Pacific Northwest and northeastern United States. These somewhat cheaper American matsutakes can be found for about $80 a pound fresh or $7 an ounce dried.
Swiftlets are birds whose nests are made from their own solidified spit and prized for human consumption in China and other South Asian nations, resulting in their reputation as “the caviar of the East.” Most commonly used in soup or rice, high-quality nests can sell for more than $1,000 a pound. The best way to get a taste for less is to settle for premade soup from a company like Golden Nest, which costs $50 for 15 ounces.
Densuke is a variety of watermelon grown in small quantities only on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. It’s distinct from other watermelons due to its dark green color, lack of stripes, and extra sweet taste. Densuke watermelons have been auctioned for up to $6,100. In late summer, some can be found stateside in supermarkets or ordered online for $100 to $200 apiece. You can also order seeds starting at $14 a bag (with a minimum order of four bags) and try growing some yourself.
Unlike the more common balsamic vinegar of Modena, or BVM, traditional balsamic vinegar is produced in the Reggio-Emilia region. It’s required under the European Protected Designation of Origin to be made from cooked grape must and aged at least 12 years, contributing to its higher price tag. While there are 100-year-aged bottles going for up to $1,000 for 3.5 fluid ounces, the 12-year-old variety can be found online at $90 for the same amount.
One of the world’s most valuable teas, the original and most prized variety of Da Hong Pao comes from tea trees in Southern China that are fed (and flavored) by rainwater running off the limestone landscape. These leaves are only getting more expensive as supply dwindles and can be worth more than 30 times their weight in gold — that’s about $1,400 a gram, or $10,000 a pot. Non-original varieties are easier to find while still possessing the same mineral or “rock-like” flavor, with a 2-ounce tin priced at $39.
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