More often than not, when we think of gold, we think of something we wear. But for centuries, dating back to ancient Egypt, this most valuable commodity has also been something we eat. And more recently, we have noticed more bling than ever popping up on our plates all across the globe.
Once the provenance of elite Japanese sushi chefs and European chocolatiers, edible gold flakes are on top of everything from hamburgers to Popeye’s fried chicken.
Years after it was ingested as a consumable status symbol, edible gold is mainstream now. Cooks are vying with each other to claim the world’s most expensive dish – using gold in all forms – edible gold leaf, edible gold flakes, edible gold powder – as if it were hundreds-and-thousands.
In Zurich, Confiserie Sprüngli sell their signature macarons called “Luxemburgerli” – wrapped in edible gold leaf sheets, and at five-star hotel Le Meurice in Paris, they offer a Rubik’s cube cake – in which some of the tiny cubes coated with gold leaf.
Classically, gold is used as a garnish for dessert concoctions.
One could be forgiven for thinking that gold is the latest must-have ingredient in the world of élevé cuisine. As a matter of fact, the history of decorating food with gold goes back to medieval Europe.
The Golden Age
The obsession of putting gold on food can be traced back in the late medieval era. A 15th-century English cookbook introduced the world with a recipe for a tart filled with dried fruits, and instructions to decorate it with walnut halves covered in gold leaf. Similarly, a contemporary French text, Le Viandier, had a recipe of roasted stuffed chicken, embellished by a garnish of meatballs covered in gold leaf.
Also in medieval times, silver, gold and precious stones such as diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds, were attributed with mysterious powers. These qualities of gold were transferred to food and subsequently to everyone who consumed it.
The 15th-century Italian cookbook, Cuoco Napoletano, had a one-course featuring boiled salted meats – ham, tongue and mortadella – all covered in edible gold. Another course included fresh curds cradled in gold leaf, and ricotta served in a gilded mould.
Although these dishes were basically meant to be eaten, the lavish use of gold was predominantly a display of power and wealth of the host, and at the same time tribute to the guest. Symbolism was all. Gilded sculptures of marzipan, roasted peacocks covered in gold leaf, allegorical figures of the host, adorned banquet tables, etc.
Conspicuous consumption was widespread – so much so that cities introduced laws to make sure that the expenses were controlled. With time, it took other forms, and the use of gold on food became much restricted – restrained to edible letterforms in the 17th-century Netherlands illustrates.
The forefront of Extravagance
Gold might not do much to impress our tastebuds, but it still has appeal in its bling. For a brief period, people felt a sense of transgression from ingesting something that is the ultimate non-food, but the 21st century has returned gold to the forefront of extravagance, especially with wedding cakes.
Each tier sheathed in a shimmering sheet of gold, or one tier completely covered with single broadband of gold or a random scattering of gold flakes. Just like the ancient sugar sculptures, these cakes give rise to a feeling of reverence and admiration, but this time the glory of gold has returned not so much to the host as to the cook, elevating the maker’s status to a culinary artist.
The magical power of gold to impress and dazzle is undeniable, especially in today’s world where sight tends to be prioritised over other senses; but skill, too, is involved.
How about gilding a walnut as the 15th-century English cookbook directed? First fixing it on the tip of a pin, brushing the gold leaf sheet on it and then gently blowing it so that the gold covers all the nooks of the walnut’s surface. Patience must be rewarded, not superficial flamboyance.