Charles has written about food and restaurants in the London Evening Standard for over a decade. He has also written widely for other newspapers and magazines including The Independent, The Times, BBC Good Food Magazine, Delicious and Bon Appetit in America. He has appeared on each series of Masterchef, each series of Celebrity Masterchef, plus Professional Masterchef. He lives just outside Worcester with his wife, three ducks, two cats, and a dog.
There are times when you look across the living room and long to throw something hard and bruising at the television squatting in the corner. This year the prize for most jaw-droppingly banal show must go to Channel Four for a two-parter called “The World’s Most Expensive Foods”. This excruciating creation plumbed new depths, as it flirted with the idea that there was a link between how expensive a food was and how good it was to eat.
The first super luxury product the programme featured was Kopi Luwak. About a decade ago, when this coffee was first marketed in the UK, it enjoyed a short publicity spike because of its bizarre production method. The Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus Hermaphroditus) is widespread in Indonesia and is very partial to ripe, wild coffee. The civet cat eats the coffee cherries but cannot digest the bean at the centre. Those beans carry on through the animal’s digestive system before emerging in a clump. The story is that these coffee beans are improved by their journey and make a cup of coffee that has a unique aroma. Civet cat bottoms perhaps? Demand for this coffee is such that hundreds of civet cats now find themselves in small cages like battery hens, where they live on a diet of coffee cherries and have their ordure sifted. The programme showed very rich people slurping coffee that allegedly cost £300 a cup. It’s hard to believe that very rich people are that stupid.
Editors, particularly those hammering out a story from a minimum amount of information, love any submission that starts with the magic words “The World’s Most Expensive…” Think back to all those broadsheet truffle and caviar stories. Truffles have always been luxurious – they do have a haunting and delightful aroma and their price is supported by a shortage. Put simply they are hard to find. Elderly Italians, or Frenchmen with trained dogs and secret truffle grounds make a living shrouded in secrecy but recently truffle farmers have had some success and it looks like we might see the price of truffles start to come down. This would be no bad thing as white Alba truffles can fetch £2,000 a kilo. The caviar dealers are also in a fix. The sturgeon is a slow growing fish and in the past turbulent times, most of the fish in the Caspian Sea have been caught and eaten – not as caviar but rather as fish. This has led to a frantic search for an efficient way to farm sturgeon and there is now a caviar farm on Exmoor – brace yourself – for a price tag of around £500 for a 250 gram tin of fish eggs.
It seems that if you put a high enough price on something there will be someone out there who will be prepared to pay top dollar (or in this case top pound) to buy into a spurious foodie back story. Forget time share salesmen; forget the legendary snake oil salesmen of the old West; a decent patter can sell pretty much anything. There is an apocryphal tale about a leading champagne house whose salesmen went out with an interesting sales pitch. The salesman started by asking their customers if their shampers was the most expensive fizz on the wine list. If the answer was “yes”, all was well, if not the salesman would ask that the price be raised until their bottle topped the list. Should the restaurant or club demur it got de-listed. Sadly, this is an indication of how many customers sit down and call for “Your most expensive champagne”.
Buying the best, buying the freshest, buying local, buying something special… are all strategies that have merit but simply buying what is most expensive leaves the customer a sitting target. A couple of years ago I tried the most expensive cheese in the world. This little number is a Serbian donkey milk cheese called Pule which at the time cost £750 a kilo. It may have been a Balkan delight, but it was very, very, nasty. It was sour but not in a good way, semi hard and rubbery. Smelling of rank contagion, tasting even worse. There have been sightings of a Swedish moose cheese that costs even more but I am confident that however bad it tastes it won’t be worse than Pule. As for those programme makers from Channel Four, the people who think you can judge food by how much it costs, they should be locked in the Green Room with nothing but a plate of Pule sandwiches.