White bread began as a luxury food. In 1800 only half of Britons had access to white bread. Even the wheat grown by tenant farmers was generally a cash crop while barley, oats and rye crops were grown to feed both families and stock. So a diet of up to a kilogram of oatmeal, oatcakes, barley bannocks or rye bread was the staple for most labourers and their families. A century later industrial milling and production systems meant that white bread was generally accessible and no longer a luxury.
An even more striking illustration of the shift from luxury plant food to commodity is for spices. Spices could be worth more than their weight in gold and, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the trade in pepper, nutmeg & mace, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom fueled European economies and rivalries. The nutmeg trees native to Run in the Banda Islands of Indonesia became central to hostilities between the English and Dutch. Part of the eventual settlement treaty eventually saw the British exchange Run for Manhattan! As a result of the diaspora of such spices being established by colonial powers in plantations throughout their potential climatic range, spices have become generally accessible.
The trajectory of wheat (and processed white flour) and spices from luxuries to daily commodities is repeated for many plant foods. However, for some crops this trajectory is reversed. In recent decades regional staples, most in the midst of a process of being supplanted by wheat, have reached boutique markets. Such crops include chia (Salvia hispanica) from central America, quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and qañiwa (Chenopodium pallidicaule) from the Andes, the amaranths (including Amaranthus caudatus, A. cruentus, and A. hypochondriacus) variously from Central America and the Andes, and even Khorosan, an ancient wheat from Iran. Despite the increasing income this new demand provides for land owners there remains concern that inflated prices see locals losing access to these high quality foods and having to substitute cheaper but lower quality seeds and grains.
American food historian Rachel Laudan suggest a hierarchy of prestige for staple plant foods historically – with roots at the bottom, then legumes in most societies, then grains, again hierarchically arranged from lesser, like millet and sorghum, to maize and rice with wheat at the pinnacle. She notes vegetables as having an ambiguous position resulting from a tendency to be associated with animal food, and fruits having exotic and, in some circumstances, even dangerous connotations. She observes that from the 1920’s onwards much of this hierarchy has been overturned by romanticism, a quest for the natural, organic or biodynamic products, diets, nutritional theory and the like.
Changing perceptions of plant foods and their status are certainly apparent. The transformation of kale over the past decade from cattle fodder to a trendy vegetable further illustrates the continually changing nature of our perception of plant foods and their status. Today wild-collected, or more rarely, cultivated wild foods have become luxuries. Such foods range from the Australian quandong (Santalum lanceolatum) to Turkish and Greek orchid icecream – dondurma – made from wild tubers of Orchis mascula.
The modern technology of crop production, storage and distribution has also changed how we perceive plants as luxury foods. Many fresh fruits that were seasonal luxuries, such as apples, strawberries and tomatoes, are now considered all-season commodities. Neoteny in vegetables and salads represents another manifestation of changes in crop technology that sees baby peas, baby carrots, broccoli shoots, baby salad greens and so on reaching our tables in recent decades.
Plant luxuries extend to fungi – famously to truffles and even the Himalayan caterpillar fungus, rare and exotic fruits such as the very best durians and even to hop shoots and certain potatoes. The world’s most expensive potatoes are the La Bonnottes from Noirmoutier – an island off the coast of western France – that sell for up to $400 per kilogram and are prized for a nutty taste supposed to derive from the salty air and seaweed amendments in the soil.
Some premium selections of signature plant foods in short supply have likely always been considered luxuries. Premium wine grapes, cocoa pods, coffee beans, teas and some exceptional spices including fresh vanilla pods, fresh peppercorns, saffron and others continue to command premium prices. Such prices also reflect not only the quality of the plant product, but also the quality of harvest, processing, storage and transport.
However, the Japanese pursuit of perfection present the most abstract examples of luxury plant foods. Here provenance, beauty and presentation are as critical as taste, and auctions determine prices. A bunch of Ruby Roman grapes grown in Ishikawa prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast of Japan’s main island sold at auction in last year for 550,000 yen ($6000 or about $200 per grape each of which were the size of a ping-pong ball). A pair of Yubari king melons from Yūbari, near Sapporo on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido sold in 2013 for 1.6 M yen ($20,000). The best examples have a perfectly smooth skin and taste like a fantastic canteloupe. The Densuke black-skinned watermelon is another fabled Japanese melon from Toma, also on Hokkaido, and saw a single melon sold at auction in 2014 for 350,000 yen ($4,000). Finally, a pair of Taiyo no Tamago (Egg of the Sun) mangoes grown in Miyazaki prefecture in southern Kyushu sold for a record 300,000 yen ($3,500) at the fruit’s first auction of the season last year. In this context the price of bananas and the banana surcharge for smoothies that followed Cyclone Larry in 2006 seem trifling!