Chewed before it's brewed: the world's most expensive coffee

There have been rumours for years but now we know for sure. <i>Charles Arthur </i>digests the secret of kopi lowak coffee, while <i>Christopher Hirst </i>looks at five other esoteric - and pricey - foodstuffs
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It costs £420 per kilogram and has a flavour that has proved impossible to imitate. But now the origin of the taste which makes kopi luwak the world's most expensive coffee has finally been unearthed - and the answer lies in the gastric juices of an African tree-cat.

It costs £420 per kilogram and has a flavour that has proved impossible to imitate. But now the origin of the taste which makes kopi luwak the world's most expensive coffee has finally been unearthed - and the answer lies in the gastric juices of an African tree-cat.

For years the story had been told of how the prized beans' smooth taste and lack of bitter aftertaste was the result of having been digested - and then excreted - by civet cats in Sumatra. Massimo Marcone, of the University of Guelph in Ontario, has proved beyond doubt that the beans used for the authentic beans have indeed passed through the digestive tract of the animals, and that it does make a difference to the taste.

The confirmation came one day when he was searching around scrubland in Ethiopia, another country where the cat-like civet is found, and discovered a pile of dung. And in it was a coffee bean. "For me it was an epiphany," he told New Scientist. By using microscopic and biochemical tests, he showed that the beans have different properties after they are eaten than before - and that this would alter the taste.

The story of kopi luwak goes back to the Dutch settlers on Sumatra, who found that palm civets, a tree-climbing relative of the normal cat-like civet, would eat the coffee cherries, swallowing the bean whole. Plantation workers would then collect the beans from the droppings and wash them (thoroughly) and subsequently discovered that they had their own flavour.

Dr Marcone proved that the beans had been affected by the civet's gastric juices by examining them at a magnification of 10,000 times: that showed pits on the surface caused by the stomach acid. Further tests showed that proteins inside the beans had also been affected: Dr Marcone says that is probably what gives the beans their special flavour.

Britain's only importer and distributor of kopi luwak, Edible, based in Redchurch Street in London, sells bags of the roasted beans for £24 per 57-gram bag, enough to make about eight small cups, according to its founder and owner Todd Dalton.

"The taste is smoother, it doesn't have that bitter aftertaste of that you normally get with coffee," said Mr Dalton. "It's got a chocolate-y sort of flavour."

He sells about 1,000 bags annually - almost one-tenth of the entire annual production of the coffee, of which only 230 kilograms are made.

"Most of it goes through Selfridge's, which means that we don't know precisely who buys it. But people like Damien Hirst and Lady Rothschild are fans of our brand," Mr Dalton said. "Though the sort of people who would really want this are the coffee connoisseurs, or who are a bit adventurous about what they're drinking. One of our customers is an Arab sheik, even though his religion forbids him from eating something like this because it's, well, defined as unclean."

And although the taste may be unique, some are unsure quite how free-range the civets that produce it might be. Colin Smith, managing director of Smith's Coffee, which roasts the beans for Edible, said: "I'm sure that people would like to think that these animals wander around in the wild, but I'd bet they're kept in cages and fed the beans. I mean would you really want to wander around the Sumatran jungle hoping to find some civet poo? Or would you keep it in a cage where you could be sure?"

Yet kopi luwak turns out not to be the only food which visits another digestive system before reaching ours. The most common is honey, where bees mix the nectar collected from flowers with a digestive enzyme called invertase, which breaks the sucrose (sugar) into two other sugars, glucose and fructose. When they get back to the hive, they vomit the result back up - and apiarists then extract that.

Similarly real bird's nest soup is made from the nests of cave-dwelling birds called swiftlets, which make their nests from their dried saliva. The nests are prized delicacies that can sell for £6,000 per kilogram, making them worth their weight in gold - if more palatable.

Meanwhile Dr Marcone has begun a useful sideline testing kopi luwak beans for authenticity, because their high price can tempt growers to blend other beans to mimic the taste. He told New Scientist that about half the coffee he tests turns out to be fake.

Culatello Italian ham for purists

What is it?

A cured Italian ham.

Why is it so special?

Culatello consists of an entire boned prosciutto ham that is sheathed in a pig's bladder, trussed in a web of tied cord and suspended in storage for a year until the meat concentrates in flavour by losing up to two-thirds of

its weight. A prosciutto weighing 20lb (9kg) may result in a culatello weighing less than 7lb (3kg). Though culatello is produced industrially, the best comes from illegal producers located in a region of the Po valley called Bassa Parmense. Their output is hard to find because they are being hounded by the EU's hygiene regulations. The American food and wine writer Burton Anderson describes the premises of one illicit culatello producer as "dank and cold as a medieval dungeon. In this atmosphere, the culatello matures slowly as the protective crust hardens and becomes coated with powdery mould."

How much?

One leading London chef who imported a whole culatello told me that he made no profit when he sold it at £25 a plate.

What does it taste like?

Cut paper-thin, a good industrial culatello is simply the best ham you have ever tasted. I once saw a party of 15 British chefs demolish three vast trays of it while ignoring every other item of a banquet in Emilia-Romagna. I can only

dream what the genuine artisan version tastes like.

Is it worth it?

Whatever the price, buy it.

Fugu A fish dish to die for

What is it?

Fugu is the Japanese name for a number of species of puffer fish. Japanese puffer fish are native to the Pacific Ocean and about 10,000 tons are eaten in Japan each year.

Why is it so special?

Eaten solely in Japan, fugu dishes must be prepared by expert chefs because

the fish's gut, ovary, skin and, in particular, liver contain the lethal

nerve agent tetrodotoxin, some 1,250 times as strong as potassium cyanide.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, fugu poisoning results in "a

rapid and violent death". Symptoms are nausea, convulsions and paralysis, followed by total respiratory failure. Strict safeguards have reduced the number of fugu fatalities in recent years. In 2002, six people

died from incorrectly prepared fugu, and last year there were just three

fatalities - all due to amateur efforts. This does not prevent the ultra-fashionable Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa including a recipe for soba risotto with

blowfish in Nobu: The Cookbook, but he suggests "you might want to use

another white fish instead".

How much?

On average, a fugu meal costs 6,000 yen (£40).

What does it taste like?

Specialist fugu restaurants serve the fish in a number of ways, but the best-known is in the form of paper-thin sashimi, like flower petals, on a large, circular dish. According to one consumer, this tastes "impossibly

delicate, like an ethereal calamari".

Is it worth it?

Not if you eat the liver.

Chateau Yquem The one glass per vine wine

What is it?

French dessert wine.

Why is it so special?

Wine colossus Robert Parker writes: "A persuasive case can be made that Yquem

is Bordeaux's single greatest wine". At every stage of production, the

producers display "fanatical obsession ... to produce the finest wines regardless of financial loss or trouble". Each vine in Yquem's 250 producing acres only creates one glass of wine. Because the grapes are picked at perfect maturity, Yquem's 150 pickers go through the vineyard at least four times over six to eight weeks. In 1964, they combed the vineyard 13 times only for the grapes to be deemed unsuitable and there was no production at

all in that year. There was also no Yquem produced in 1992, 1974 and 1972.

How much?

A bottle of Yquem '88 (rated 99 out of 100 by Parker) will set you back £182, but the recently released '99 is available for £66, described by the shipper as "one of the most reasonable prices ever".

What does it taste like?

The utmost luxury - layer upon layer of gorgeous flavours but never cloying.

In the '75, Parker detects "smoke, honeyed peaches, pineapple, apricots and

hazelnuts intermixed with... orange marmalade, coconut and creme brulée

notes." And it's a wine that keeps. Parker praises the '11 for its "dark-gold colour, awesomely intense, sweet nose, unctuous, thick, fabulous flavour" - and that's the 1811.

Is it worth it?

God, yes.

Wagyu Japan's £90-a-pound steak

What is it?

A breed of Japanese beef cattle, also grown in small numbers in the USA,

Australia and Wales.

Why is it so special?

Wagyu cattle are distinguished by a dense marbling of fat in the flesh. The fattiest - also the most highly esteemed - type of Wagyu comes from Kobe. A pound of Kobe steak may consist of 90 per cent fat and 10 per cent beef. Known as shimofuri, the Kobe beef cattle enjoy a Dionysian diet of rice, beans and rice lager (the latter is to help their digestion, not to flavour their flesh). Famously, they are also massaged by farmers, although this is in order to soothe their muscles rather than disperse the fat. Despite their fattiness, Wagyu are slender, almost delicate beasts. According to the food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, "Wagyu fat contains a high proportion of monosaturated oleic acid (also found in olive oil), which accounts for its buttery taste and moderate cholesterol."

How much?

In Japan, the best Kobe beef sells for up to £90 per pound. In New York, a Wagyu burger costs £24.

What does it taste like?

The grilled chunk of Australian-grown wagyu I ate earlier this year was tasty and extraordinarily tender - perhaps too tender. A cross between steak and paté, it seemed to be lacking in character compared to bistecca alla fiorentina or even a good, well-hung British steak. I'd like to give it a second try.

Is it worth it?

Maybe.

Argan oil A Berber sex aid

What is it?

Oil produced from the nut of the argan tree ( Argania spinosa), which grows

to a height of 10 metres in south-west Morocco.

Why is it so special?

Along with the civet-processed coffee, this is one of the few foodstuffs

that passes through an animal's alimentary canal prior to consumption. The

fruit of the argan is eaten by goats, which climb the tree's gnarled,

twisted trunks and browse aerially among the branches. Shaped like a large olive, the fleshy part of the fruit is digested by the goat but the nut is

excreted. The nuts are gathered by farmers and individually cracked on a stone anvil. The kernels are then lightly roasted and ground. It takes almost two days' work to produce a litre of oil. Red-brown in colour, the oil is used for cooking, while the residue is mixed with honey and almonds to form a spread called amiou that is eaten by the Berbers as a spread on bread. It is considered to have aphrodisiac

properties.

How much?

Around £10 for 250ml.

What does it taste like?

Earthy, woody, musty. Exactly as you would imagine something

recovered from Moroccan goat shit would taste.

Is it worth it?

No. Once, we were given two bottles of argan oil. We threw both away. Amiou

paste is gritty and equally unpleasant. It produced no detectable aphrodisiac reaction.

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