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
Saffron – Talking About the Basics
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.
Where Does Saffron Come From? Origins, Brief History & Harvesting
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.
The Good the Bad and the Fake – Quality Counts!
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.
Popular Saffron Dishes – Saffron’s Role in Culinary Culture
As early as 300BC noted Chinese Herbalist Wan Zen quoted Saffron for being a suitable way to “aromatise wine”. In the fourth and fifth centuries the Romans began a long-standing infatuation with the spice. The Imperium Romanum generously spread it around Western Europe where it began to propagate far and wide; taking root in local cooking traditions, kitchens and campfires. Over time, the myriad uses of saffron as a spice, a flavor, evolved into what it is today.
Saffron is commonly used with chicken, rice, seafood, teas, baking and more. Using a tried, tested and true recipe is a great place to start, but the lovely thing about saffron is how creative you can be with it. Saffron is great because both the flavor profile and presentation of a dish can be enhanced. A quality saffron can be immediately associated with rich, expensive and decadent dishes; rare, & crafted with quality.
The Price of Spice – Why is Saffron so Expensive?
Long before being shocked and pleased by the taste, most people are shocked by the price of good Saffron. It’s not just an old farmers tale, this is the worlds most expensive spice. Market prices will fluctuate depending on harvest and market conditions. The spice weighs in at up to 9,500$ USD for a Kilogram (Around 4,300$ USD per Pound).
The price of saffron is directly related to the harvest. Saffron needs to be handpicked. This is highly labor intensive and slow going. It has to be done with precise timing or the overall quality can be affected – timing is everything!