Saffron, the Costliest Spice in the World
By Chris Rawstern
From 70,000 to 250,000 flowers are needed to make one pound of saffron. The process of picking the 3 tiny stigma of each flower is very labor intensive, making it the costliest spice in the world. Saffron comes from the autumn crocus, Crocus sativus, grown mainly in lands with a long hot summer. It grows from Spain to India, two of the main countries that export this spice. Some of the best saffron in the world comes from Iran and India, but is also found in Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey, among others. It has a penetrating, bitter and highly aromatic taste. A very small amount will produce the most brilliant golden color.
Spices are defined as various strongly flavored or aromatic substances of vegetable origin. They are usually obtained from tropical plants, and commonly used as condiments. Spices are generally dried roots, bark, buds, seeds or berries. Herbs are generally defined as the leafy parts of a plant used for flavoring. Saffron seems to fall in neither category, but it is grown in tropical places, and is definitely not leafy matter, so is defined as a spice. It is also used as a dye, to scent perfumes and as an aid to digestion.
Probably first cultivated in Asia Minor, saffron was used by all the ancient civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean, the Egyptians and the Romans. Later it was grown in Spain, possibly taken there by Arabs. In the 11th century it reached France, Germany and England. During this time, saffron had great commercial value. Powdered saffron is to be avoided as it is easily adulterated with paprika, turmeric, beets or pomegranate fibers, and even with the tasteless, odorless stamens of the saffron crocus itself. The highest quality saffron is recognized as the deepest in color. Too many yellow stigmas in the mix make it an inferior quality.
The flowers are picked once the petals open, late in autumn. The stigmas are removed and set to dry. Saffron is easy to use as its strong yellow dye is water soluble. Common saffron substitutes are annatto, safflower or turmeric, though the flavors are far different. My most early memory of saffron was its use in my Grandma’s soup. The entire house smelled of her soup, with its high saffron note. At the time, during my childhood, I knew nothing of saffron, or that it was what made Grandma’s soup taste so wonderful. When I discovered saffron on my own, I realized this was what gave her soup that particular flavor and color, and saffron is now a favored spice in my cupboard.
Some uses for saffron are in breads and buns, giving them a lovely golden color. Use saffron in soups where color and aroma are desired. It is a key ingredient in Spain’s paella, and also used in France’s bouillabaisse and in risottos of Italy. Saffron is excellent with fish dishes. Obviously, it can be used as a dye, with its strong yellow gold color. It is an ingredient in some liqueurs, such as chartreuse. Use your imagination and be creative with its use. The tiniest pinch is all that is needed.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I hope it was informative and helped you along your own culinary journey.
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