Discriminating diners may willingly shell out for premium product, but it’s always nice to know what, exactly, you’re paying for. Here’s a peek behind the scenes at what goes into raising the animals that are destined to become some of the most luxurious ingredients in the world.
In Japan, beef is graded on a 12-point marbling scale (the higher the number, the more layers of fat). While the well-known Kobe beef scores a six, Matsuzaka's clocks in at a whopping 10-12, making it arguably the finest beef in all the land. Matsuzaka cows are kept virginal during their time in remote Mie prefecture, which farmers swear affects the taste of the finished product. They’re also plied with beer to encourage their appetites, massaged regularly with a stiff brush to evenly distribute their fat, and generally coddled for all three years of their life (an unusually long life for beef cows). The result is beef so richly marbled as to resemble fine art. It literally melts in your mouth should you be lucky enough to snag a bite, which—at over $200 per pound wholesale—doesn’t come cheap.
Sheep have been grazing in this lush corner of Provence, in the foothills of the French Alps for thousands of years. These PGI (Protected Geographical Indication)-designated lambs are raised in accordance to traditional methods, roaming freely and munching on such wild grasses and herbs as rosemary and thyme. Only three rustic local sheep breeds (Mérinos d'Arles, Préalpes du Sud, and Mourérous) are allowed to propagate; lambs must be raised on their mother’s milk for at least two months of their three-to-six month lives. No Sisteron lamb will ever taste silage (fodder), and every locally-dispatched animal is sold with a "raised in Sisteron" label and a barcode that can reveal its farm. Locals claim you can taste the herbs that the lambs snacked on in their meat, prized for smooth, sweet taste and rosy pink hue.
Sea urchins are wild animals. They're not raised in the conventional sense, but the harvesting procedure for what ultimately ends up as the sweet, briny uni on your sushi meal is intensive enough to qualify. In pristine Shakotan Peninsula, off the west coast of the Japan’s northern island Hokkaido, fishermen wake before dawn to assess the weather; if it’s calm enough, they’ll spend hours leaning over the sides of boats in search of urchins to collect with a long claw tool. (Uni harvesters in Maine and California free-dive to depths of 20 to 30 feet in cold, choppy water to scrape individual urchins by hand.) The labor-intensive process can pay off very well: From June to August, when Shakotan uni is at its freshest, a single, meticulously packed, beautifully presented tray can go for more than $250 at Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji market, setting the top price for all unis.
Poulet Rouge Chicken
Already known for $215-a-pop Poulet de Bresse capons, French farmers adhering to the government-sponsored Label Rouge program have been following strict quality standards for more workaday heritage-breed chickens for decades. The poulet rouge (from the redbro cou nu, or naked-neck chicken, breed) are renowned for their thin skin, lean bodies and rich, fully flavored meat. The best-known producer in the U.S. is North Carolina-based Poulet Rouge Fermier du Piedmont, where chickens ($15 to 20 each) are raised for nearly twice as long as commodity breeds in sprawling indoor-outdoor pastures in which they’re fed an all-grain diet, given shiny toys to play with, and even exposed to classical music.
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota
Contributing perhaps the most storied of all pork products, black-skinned Ibérian pigs live the ultimate life of luxury before their demise (or “sacrifice,” as it is referred to by locals) on top of Spain’s cured ham hierarchy. The pigs run freely across sprawling, partially forested 1,000- to 2,000-acre farms for nearly two years (more than twice as long as most commercial breeds) until they reach a weight of 360 pounds; they munch on grasses, herbs and their favorite food, acorns (bellota), which are rich in the oleic acid that lends its distinctly nutty, olive-like flavor to the finished product . The Spanish government strictly controls all aspects of production and has a distinct labeling system to match; the highest grade is jamon iberico de bellota which means pure-bred Ibérico pigs that have gained at least a third of their weight from only foraged acorns and grass while aging at least three years. It’ll set you back about $100 per lb.