There's something about the mere thought of certain rare, nigh-impossible-to-procure ingredients that sets hardcore food lovers on the prowl. They're fiends for delectables they can only hunt down if they're lucky or really, really persistent. Grail-foods vary. It could be Borneo's red-fleshed durians, even the spine of an ethically-fished sturgeon. There is, of course, a dark-side to such cravings. Precious items can become so sought-after they lead to over-hunting. Think of porcelain-hued Almas beluga caviar. Other luxury foods are emblematic of human hubris: shark fins, for example or powdered rhinoceros horn. All of these, it goes without saying, should never be eaten. But there also exist a number of highly coveted – yet non-environmentally detrimental – comestibles. Here are five of the rarest of the rare.
The coco-de-mer grows exclusively in the Seychelles, so sampling it requires a trip to the Indian Ocean. Part of the fruit's allure is its uncanny resemblance to the feminine reproductive area. It used to be known as the billionaire's fruit, because only they were had the wherewithal to taste it. Today, no amount of money can buy a nibble: it's illegal to purchase an actual edible fruit. The government controls sales of non-edible seeds (which generates a fortune through their tourism industry). Anyone caught without the proper permits faces fines and prison sentences. Thanks to these conservation efforts, the coco-de-mer is currently safe, its habitat thriving. Still, there is one way to taste it legally: a resident with a tree in their backyard can share it with you. As to the flavour, imagine a kind of earthy, spunky, breast-milk-laced coconut pudding.
For an ephemeral moment each fall, the finest mushroom on Earth makes its appearance in Rome's top trattorias. Although less famous than porcini mushrooms, these delicate, egg-shaped fungi (ovolo is Italian for "little egg") cost more, as they're significantly harder to find. But even a tiny, unforgettable portion is enough for anyone to understand why ovoli were prized by Roman emperors. They're best eaten raw, in a salad with olive oil, red wine vinegar, celery leaves and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. They're also great with white alba truffles. Compared to truffles, they're less aromatic and more delicate, with a mildly fruity sous-bois taste. They're also profoundly soul-satisfying, as the Caesars knew.
DRIED PIG BLADDER
Of all the dishes that put French cuisine on the map, the one most beloved by gastronomic insiders – and least known to anyone else – is the poularde demi-deuil. Literally translated, it means a hen half in mourning: the thin slices of truffle slipped under the bird's skin give it the semblance of wearing a veil. The cooking method is what sets the dish apart: The entire hen (ideally a blue-footed chicken from Bresse) is placed inside a pig's bladder that's been cleaned, dried, then soaked in tepid water to reconstitute. When the poultry-filled bladder gets heated up in a stockpot, it balloons in size like a veiny, inflated condom. There's a logic to this bizarre method: It's an archaic French-countryside take on sous-vide cookery. When done right, the dish is a triumph, with each bite of juicy poularde tasting like it's been infused with truffles and lardons. But where are you going to find a dried pig bladder? Answer: Lyon.
Humans have always had a hankering for bodily byproducts, whether they be droplets of glandular secretion from Vietnamese water bugs or Chong Cha, a Chinese tea made from leaves excreted by moth larvae. The most desirable of all such oddities is ambergris, a lumpy, wax-like formation that originates in the intestines of sperm whales. (Sometimes disparaged as being "whale vomit," it's more accurate to compare it to a gallstone.) Ambergris gives off a fleshy, musky aroma. It's also edible, and acts a flavour enhancer with dishes as varied as sorbets, scrambled eggs, chocolate mousse and wild fowl. It amplifies each of those dishes, elevating them into aristocratic versions of themselves. You won't find it at the local farmers' market, though. Blobs of ambergris periodically wash up onto remote shores, fetching tens of thousands of dollars a pound.
The finest end to the finest meal would have to be the ultimate form of sweetness, some kind of be-all, end-all ambrosial essence of essences. Which brings us to esszencia, the most decadently sugary concoctionon Earth. (Hungarians invented it, of course.) Esszencia is essentially the unpressed, free-run juice that oozes out of hand-picked Tokaji grapes covered in grey botrytis mould. (It takes 200 pounds of these shrivelled, rotting raisins to make a single bottle; a goodhalf-bottle runs to $500.) After six to eight years of fermentation, the result is not so much wine as a kind of perversely thick elixir traditionally consumed not in a glass but in a mother-of-pearl spoon. Its alcohol level can be as low as 2 per cent, with massive amounts of residual sugar. The finest ones are made by Istvan Szepsy and Royal Tokaji, whose bottling from the 2000 vintage was rated 100 points by Robert Parker. (He also notes that it'll drink well at least until the year 3000.)