In This Article:
• Saffron - All the basics about the spice
• Where does saffron come from? Origins, brief history & harvesting
• The good the bad and the fake – Quality counts!
• Popular saffron dishes – Saffron’s role in culinary culture
• The price of spice - Why is saffron so expensive?
Reading time: 3 Minutes
This unique spice (often mistaken for a herb) is harvested from a sun-loving flower called the saffron crocus. The part of the flower which saffron is harvested from is called the stigma & the harvested stigmas in final form, ready to be used, are called saffron threads. Saffron is most commonly grown in The Middle East, the Mediterranean, Western Europe and the Americas. The flavor of saffron could be described as floral and earthy with a hint of honey – a highly unique flavor profile. Given the geography of the harvest, the spice is most commonly used in Persian, Indian, and European culinary dishes.
There’s a wide variety of highly cultured dishes you can create with saffron, but we often see it included in rice dishes, soups, seafood and famously – paella. There are many varieties and levels of quality that are important when making a purchase. Saffron has its own ISO (International Organization for Standardization) number with different grades of the spice that range from poorest quality to finest quality. Different levels of quality will of course affect the price – some of the most sought-after saffron harvests can sell for as much as 4,300 USD per pound.
There is some contention involving the true origins of Saffron. While it’s commonly believed that Iran was the first country to cultivate, use and distribute Saffron, there’s also a solid case for Greece and Mesopotamia being the first to work with it in the bronze age.
Saffron’s first applications may not have been culinary, but it has had a long and ancient relationship with art and culture. The spice can elicit a range of vibrant colors between orange, yellow and gold. It’s been scientifically documented that up to 50,000 years ago, saffron was used as a pigment for wall paintings in Northern Iran, for example.
In early middle eastern culture, saffron has been historically recorded in a wide variety of roles. Textiles, art, religion, cosmetic, medical, and personal hygiene, to name a few. Over time, saffron and its usefulness migrated globally – even to the Americas eventually. It’s caused wars, captivated emperors, spice traders and businesses over the centuries. As we know it now, it’s primarily used as a spice, but certain medical research is ongoing & it looks promising.
In the 14th century when the flower made inroads into Germany, adulteration
(fakes, blends, etc..) of the saffron threads became rampant, and the first instance of the governing of saffron quality & harvest integrity came into law. The “Safranschou code” was born and punishment for selling fakes ranged from “parking ticket” to “Off with his head!”.
In recent times, saffron adulteration remains a problem. Fortunately, we can no longer execute our local grocer in the event of a bad buy, so paying attention to a few key elements such as taste, smell, look and price will go a long way in making sure you’ve got an authentic ingredient. The Safranschou code is many centuries undone, & now we can also use an ISO code to verify the quality of saffron threads in the marketplace.