Gold, one of the world’s most valued and costly commodities, has moved from the jeweller’s studio to the kitchen. Cooks vying to claim the world’s most expensive dessert lavish their creations with gold in all forms – gold leaf, gold flakes and gold powder – as if it were hundreds-and-thousands. It’s applied to the most exclusive chocolates as well as to the most pedestrian of street foods, such as donuts and ice cream.
In Paris, Ladurée’s tea-time delicacies include gold-wrapped macarons, and at the five-star Le Meurice, hotel pâtissier Cedric Grolet offers a Rubik’s Cube cake, with some of the tiny cubes coated with gold leaf. Last February, Tokyo department store Shinjuku Isetan offered sushi-to-go rolled in gold leaf – at the equivalent of around $125 a piece.
One could be forgiven for thinking that gold is the latest must-have ingredient in the world of haute cuisine. In fact, the history of ornamenting food with gold goes back at least to medieval Europe.
The golden age
Gold came into its own in the late medieval era. A 15th-century English manuscript cookbook gives a recipe for a tart filled with dried fruits, with instructions to decorate it with walnut halves covered in gold leaf. A contemporary French text of medieval recipes, Le Viandier, offers a recipe for roasted stuffed chicken, further embellished by a garnish of meatballs covered in gold or silver leaf.
In medieval times, gold, silver and precious stones such as diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, were attributed with various virtues and mysterious powers. These qualities were magically transferred to a food during cooking, and subsequently to anyone who consumed it (just as magically, the precious metals and jewels were in no way diminished by the cooking and could be used again).
The 15th-century cook to the Duke of Savoy, Maistre Chiquart, gave instructions in his 1420 cookbook for a restorative chicken broth for a nobleman for which a selection of valuables was added to the pot, according to the doctor’s prescription. There was no chance of the gold or gems being swallowed; Chiquart described how to wrap and tie them securely in clean white linen, and reminded the cook to retrieve the package before the refined essence was presented to the nobleman.
At a banquet given in honour of the Prince of Capua, the menu for which is appended to the 15th-century Italian cookbook known as Cuoco Napoletano, one course featured boiled salted meats – ham, tongue and mortadella – all covered in gold. A subsequent course included fresh curds cradled in gold leaf, and ricotta served in a gilded mould. The ultimate ostentation was gilded brooms to sweep beneath the tables at the end of the feast.
Although these dishes were presumably meant to be eaten, the lavish use of gold was primarily a blatant display of the wealth and power of the host, at the same time paying tribute to the status of the guest. Symbolism was all. Roasted peacocks, usually considered inedible, could be covered with gold leaf “for pleasure and magnificence”, wrote Platina in his De Honesta Voluptate. Gilded sculptures of sugar or marzipan, allegorical figures or likenesses of the host or guest, adorned banquet tables; a 15th-century Roman banquet featured a model of the Colosseum embellished with gold. The climax of a dinner given by Pope Clement VI in Avignon was a silver tree hung with golden fruit.
Conspicuous consumption was rife – so much so that some cities introduced sumptuary laws in an attempt to moderate excessive spending. In time, it seems, it took other forms and the use of gold on food became more restrained, as the example of edible letterforms in 17th-century Netherlands illustrates.
It’s not just Europe, for centuries gold or silver leaf has also been a standard decoration on Indian desserts and sweets, particularly for weddings and religious festivals.
The ultimate non-food
Flavourless and biologically inert, gold does nothing to impress our tastebuds. Its appeal is all in its bling. For a brief instant, we might feel a thrill of profligate extravagance, a sense of transgression from ingesting something that is resolutely non-food.
The 21st century has returned gold to the forefront of extravagance, especially with wedding cakes. Each tier might be sheathed in a shimmering sheet of gold or, more discreetly, one tier might wear a single broad band of gold or a casual scattering of gold flakes. Like the medieval sugar sculptures, these cakes evoke awe and admiration, but this time the reflected glory is returned not so much to the host as to the cook, elevating the creator’s status to culinary artist.
The power of gold to dazzle and impress is undeniable, especially in an age where sight tends to be prioritised over other senses. But skill, too, is involved.
Imagine gilding a walnut as the medieval text directed, first fixing it on the tip of a pin, delicately enveloping it in gold leaf then gently blowing so that the gold covered all the nooks and crannies of the walnut’s surface. Such patience is far more worthy of reward than superficial flamboyance.