Saffron, the spice dearly loved by many

Adding saffron to a dish is like having cashmere in a blended wool sweater, it immediately ups the desirability factor and puts it in the favorite rotation.  There is something about this herb that elevates a dish to something special.  I have friends from various saffron producing regions who claim that theirs is the superior product.  I cannot claim expertise, but I think perhaps its a bit of terrior, their saffron is the best of the dishes of that area.  While I cannot claim to identify the best, saffron from different regions does taste differently. Plus the fact that the saffron they are consuming is probably fresher and closer to the source might have something to do with it.

somehow a bulk saffron purchase does not seem all that cheap

Saffron comes from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus. Crocus is a genus in the family Iridaceae. Each saffron crocus grows to between 8″ to 12″ and bears up to four flowers, each with three distinctive vivid crimson stigmas, which are each the distal end of a carpel.  Together with stalks (or styles) that connect the stigmas to their host plant, the dried stigmas are used treasured around the globe as agents of taste and color. Saffron originated Southwest Asia before spreading across the globe.

more on those prices

The domesticated saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is an autumn-flowering perennial plant unknown in the wild, as it cannot reproduce without human assistance.  The saffron as we know it is thought to have originated from  the eastern Mediterranean autumn-flowering Crocus cartwrightianus, aka “wild saffron” and originating in Central Asia.  The saffron’s reproductive challenges are believed to be attributable to growers insatiable search for longer stigmas. It is often sadly mistaken for the more common autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale, which is also known as “meadow saffron” or “naked lady.”  I say sadly because this case of mistake identify can be fatal.  For that matter, high concentrations of saffron are also poisonous.

Making the Grade

Grading standards are set by the International Organization for Standardization, a federation of national standards bodies. For those individuals who take this seriously, ISO standards come into play, with ISO 3632 focused exclusively on saffron and establishes four empirical color intensity grades: IV (poorest), III, II, and I (finest quality). Determination of non-stigma content (“floral waste content”) and other inorganic material content (“ash”) are also key.  As might be expected, price closely aligns with the underlying scores that support the grades.  However, many experts reject the lab test results, preferring a more holistic method of sampling batches of thread for such traits as taste, aroma, moisture content, elasticity, lack of broken off thread debris (similar to the wine trade in relying on human subjective review).

Persian goodness

 When Imitation is Not the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Despite attempts at quality control (ISO standards and the like), saffron adulteration is alive and well, particularly among the cheapest grades.  If you think you are getting a fantastic bargain on your saffron (I’m thinking of those packages I’ve seen for about $2 in the corner markets) and it seems too good to be true, it is.  Adulteration was first documented in Europe’s Middle Ages, when those found selling adulterated saffron were executed under the Safranschou code. [When something is traded as a currency and rivals gold in value, they take it seriously.]  Typical methods include mixing in extraneous substances like beets, pomegranate fibers, red-dyed silk fibers, or the saffron crocus’s tasteless and odorless yellow stamens. Other methods included dousing saffron fibers with viscid substances like honey or vegetable oil. However, powdered saffron is more prone to adulteration, with turmeric, paprika, and other powders added to dilute the contents. Adulteration also applies to revising upward the grade of saffron.

When the Terroir Comes In

The various saffron crocus cultivars give rise to thread types that are often regionally distributed and characteristically distinct. Varieties from Spain, such as “Spanish Superior” and “Creme”, are generally mellower in color, flavor, and aroma.  They are graded by Spanish government standards. Italian varieties are more intense than Spanish, and the Iranian version trumps them all.

Similar to the arguments about (legitimate) olive oil (Spanish versus Greek versus US),  consumers regard certain cultivars as “premium” quality. The “Aquila” saffron, or zafferano dell’Aquila, has a high safranal and crocin content, distinctive thread shape, unusually pungent aroma, and intense color, and grown on only a small plot in the Navelli Valley of Italy’s Abruzzo region, near L’Aquila. It was first introduced to Italy by a Dominican monk from Inquisition-era Spain.  Another Italian saffron region is in San Gavino Monreale, Sardinia is known for producing saffron with that addicting heady scent and color.  From the Kashmir regions is the “Mongra” or “Lacha” saffron (Crocus sativus ‘Cashmirianus’), which in addition to its physical attributes, is also prized because of its difficulty to obtain) for a variety or reasons, including repeat droughts, blights, and crop failures in the Indian-controlled areas coupled with an Indian export ban. Kashmiri saffron is recognisable by its dark maroon-purple hue; it among the world’s darkest, which hints at strong flavor, aroma, and colourative effect.  The Indian government is working with the Afghanistan government to kill heroin with saffron, so maybe in the future it will not be such a challenge.

The Back Story

Saffron use has been document for over four millenia, with human consumption initially focused on medicinal qualities.  Saffron-based pigments have indeed been found in 50,000 year-old art work in northwest Iran.  Persians apparently the first to discover the vast culinary and other uses.  However, non-Persians were suspicious and feared the Persians’ use of saffron as a drugging agent or aphrodisiac. During his Asian campaigns, Alexander the Great used Persian saffron in his food and baths, with his troops imitating these practices and bringing saffron-bathing to Greece, leading to interest in this spice on the European continent.

Conflicting theories explain saffron’s arrival in South Asia. Historians offer two ideas, either Persian transplantation of saffron to stock new gardens and parks, or perhaps the Persians’ colonization of Kashmir leading to its broadening adoption. Buddhist monks in India wore saffron-coloured robes after the Gautama Buddha’s death. This color is now widely adopted in all Buddhist countries, but today, the robes are died with cheaper stuff, namely turmeric, jackfruit, or gamboge.

saffron in my robes?

European saffron cultivation plummeted after the lights on the Roman Empire went out. It took the spread of Islamic influence to reintroduce the crop to Spain, France and Italy.  The 14th-century Black Death did its part to drive demand for saffron-based treatments, and large quantities of threads were imported via Venetian and Genoan ships.  The theft of one such shipment by a naughty noblemen sparked the fourteen-week long “Saffron War”.  The resulting fear of rampant saffron piracy spurred cultivation in Switzerland, and seeing the impact on the economy, the citizens of Nuremberg tried their hand.  However, here adulteration became epidemic and resulted in the Safranschou code — culprits were fined, imprisoned, or executed.

Saffron production is largely confined to the lands bounded by the Mediterranean in the west through the rugged region of Iran and Kashmir in the east. With the exception of Antarctica, all other continents produce some amount, albeit smaller quantities. Iran commands the lions share of production with Spain, Greece, Morocco and Kashmir rounding out the top 5.

Spanish saffron

Given the prohibitively high labor costs and abundant Iranian imports means that few other places continue the tedious harvest, such as Europe, including Austria, United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland, Tasmania, China, Egypt, France, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Turkey (mainly around the town of Safranbolu – get it?), Central Africa, California and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania are microscale cultivators.  Yes, the Pennsylvania Dutch brought a desire for saffron from Germany, and continue to grow it today, although its just not easy.

The Spanish colonies in the Caribbean bought such large amounts of this new American saffron that it’s list price on the Philadelphia commodities exchange rivaled gold.   The trade with the Caribbean collapsed in the War of 1812, when many saffron-bearing merchant vessels were destroyed.

England got into the act with trading and during the Middle Ages; the use of expensive ingredients to demonstrate wealth might have explained its appeal.  Maybe not the same interest in showing off, but today, two areas of England are known for saffron in their dishes; East Anglia and Cornwall. Saffron Walden, Essex gets its name from this spice.

The town of Safranbolu in Turkey also derives its name from saffron, as they not only grew it, but actively traded in it. Needless to say there are a lot of recipes using saffron in Ottoman cuisine as many of the town’s cooks served the Ottoman court.

Why all the $$$?

Saffron is expensive for a few reasons, first it is very labor intensive to harvest, and it takes a lot of crocuses to process a relative little amount, for example to obtain 1 lb of dry saffron 50,000–75,000 flowers, ( 70,000 to 200, 000 threads) must be harvested.  To get a kilogram, one needs a plot the size of two football fields, to get the 110,000–170,000 flowers needed.  To get a pound of saffron, Wikipedia quoted about 40 hours of labor, and Harold McGee ( in his book, On Food and Cooking) lists 200! So labor costs quickly add up. Then consider opportunity costs; if saffron were not grown, what other product might be harvested?

Additionally, according the book, Culinaria – Spain, when the spice is ready – its ready.  In October, the saffron must be harvested within the day to maintain the flavor.  The entire harvest period lasts for about 10 days.   As a nod towards its historic use as currency, the spanish expression for bartering is “to pay in especie” (“spice”).
What if I Can’t Find It?

Some saffron substitutes include safflower (Carthamus tinctorius, which is often sold as “Portuguese saffron” or “açafrão”), annatto, and turmeric.

More about the fascinating story of saffron + some good recipes

The Cuisine of Andalusia via Saudi Armco World

The Flavors of Arabia via Saudi Armco World

Middle Eastern Cooking: The Legacy via Saudi Armco World

Rouille – a saffron sauce that gives mayo the boot – via NYT

St. Lucia buns from Sweden

Update me when site is updated

20 comments for “Saffron, the spice dearly loved by many

  1. December 31, 2011 at 5:34 PM

    It’s worth every penny to get the quality stuff. Nothing tastes quite like saffron. And it adds such color and dimension to so many dishes. Happy New Year!
    Carolyn Jung recently posted..My Fave Eats of 2011

  2. December 31, 2011 at 6:25 PM

    It’s funny, because I am not a big fan of that spice… Mostly I like it in tajines.

    Happy New Year!



  3. December 31, 2011 at 8:09 PM

    This is a fascinating post on this sought after herb. It does make such a difference in dishes awakening flavors. Paella would not be the same without it.
    I hope you have a Happy New Year!
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Happy New Year!

  4. December 31, 2011 at 10:26 PM

    I have known very little about saffron, thanks, LouAnn, for writing and sharing it.
    Happy New Year!
    Angie@Angie’s Recipesa recently posted..Mango and Vanilla Ice Cream Trifles

  5. OysterCulture
    January 1, 2012 at 7:52 AM

    Carolyn, I agree, the quality is very obvious

    Rosa, I felt the same when I first had it, but it certainly grew on me

    Christine, I agree, you really notice when its not there

    ‘Angie, my pleasure

  6. January 1, 2012 at 12:54 PM

    i wish you the best for 2012 for you and all yours !!Pierre
    Pierre recently posted..Pétoncles flambées-cognac crème de tomate et Ephémère curry

  7. January 1, 2012 at 8:21 PM

    Saffron fascinates me – just the idea of so many flowers needed to produce such a small amount – and really – who thought of it anyway? You went into history – but don’t you just wonder who decided to take it to the nth degree?It’s the lobster-spice, the good champagne-spice add it and don’t mess with it – it’s that good. I do see it as dye – such a small amount changes all.
    Happy New Year! May 2012 bring joys and provoking posts!
    Claudia recently posted..Sformato di Spinaci – A Spinach Flan for you

  8. January 1, 2012 at 9:16 PM

    I use saffron a lot, it’s fascinating to learn all the details about this spice. happy new year!

  9. January 3, 2012 at 8:12 AM

    Saffron is the most delicious spice.It would be great to experience harvesting saffron on October.

  10. January 3, 2012 at 9:54 PM

    I’ve always been disappointed by many dishes with saffron, to be honest, because I can’t seem to taste it! Many restaurants boast saffron in their dishes but use it so minimally they might as well not have used it. I should just buy it myself and use it liberally. 🙂

    Thanks for all the fascinating facts about the spice I never truly got to try! 😉
    sophia recently posted..Meet me at the coffee bar

  11. January 6, 2012 at 9:19 PM

    I still remember how intimidated I was when I first bought saffron. I used it in the recipe it was purchased for and then didn’t touch the rest of the tiny envelope for ages. I guess I feel justified being daunted, thinking of all the work harvesting!
    I WIlkerson recently posted..Make Your Own Chocolate Syrup: No High Fructose Corn Syrup!

  12. January 9, 2012 at 6:33 AM

    Like Rosa, I’m not a huge saffron fan. I eat it in paella but can’t think of another dish where I use it. How long will it last on the shelf?
    tammy recently posted..Embracing Diversity

  13. OysterCulture
    January 9, 2012 at 3:24 PM

    Pierre – You too!

    Claudia – You hit the nail on the head on my fascination with food and culture. Who thought this would be a good idea to use in this way?

    5 Star – My pleasure

    Sophia – It can be subtle if you do not have a strong sense of what to expect. Perhaps try making something two ways. one with it and one without

    I wilkerson – Me too! I am better now, but I treated that stuff as if it was the last bit on earth!

    Tammy – I love it in Persian style kabobs, where the meat is marinated in a yogurt, garlic and saffron base. It is also very good in ice cream and sorbet. I wouldn’t imagine its good for more than a year, if that.

  14. January 9, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    I especially appreciate the explanation of the price here. While I’ve had saffron before, I’ve never purchased it to cook with. The reason really isn’t the price, just that I haven’t made anything that has needed…yet. 🙂
    Lori recently posted..Ginger Soy Pak Choi

  15. January 10, 2012 at 7:26 AM

    What an absolutely fascinating and in depth post about Saffron, LouAnn!

    Ever since I discovered information about the Pennsylvania Dutch and the lucrative trade they had growing Saffron in the 1800s, I have been attempting to plant my own here in central PA. It just won’t happen. Not one single thread. I can’t even get the little bulbs to peek. (I do think the moles keeping munching on them though:) Getting the bulbs here is difficult too because most nurseries warn you that they won’t guarantee them to grow which doesn’t bother me I simply want to keep trying. I had one nursery that refused to sell them to me. You have sparked my interest, and determination yet one more time. I WILL try again!!!

    Thank you so much for sharing…
    Louise recently posted..I’m So Happy I Could Just Burst!

  16. January 14, 2012 at 2:01 AM

    I also love saffron a lot, my friend! Too bad that it is ooh so expensive & I can see why!
    I think you will love my vegan fennel, saffron & soy cream tartlets a lot with a vegan warm side salad. here is the link:
    Sophie recently posted..Energizing & good-for-you juices & smoothies!

  17. January 17, 2012 at 2:06 PM

    Saffron is one of my favorite spices!!!! Love the color and flavor!
    Erica recently posted..Slow Cooker Pot Roast with Tamarind Sauce (Carne con Salsa de Tamarindo)

  18. February 14, 2012 at 5:46 PM

    Great story! I had no idea that it took so much space to grow saffron of any reasonable quantity. In that context, using it in your bath sounds like the ultimate indulgence. Do you think that Alex the G had any particular reason for these rich soaks? So interesting! I recently read on another blog that he started a fad in men shaving off their long beards, too. Clearly a trend-setter.

    I use saffron occasionally, mainly in paella. But I have only ever seen one or two kinds, all labelled “saffron.” Where do you think one might find a saffron retailer with multiple types? On line, I guess.

  19. OysterCulture
    February 18, 2012 at 1:20 PM

    Lori – I knew it was a labor intensive process that drove the cost, but just how much so was surprising. Look forward to seeing what you do do with it when you get some.

    Louise – I look forward to hearing of your success.

    Sophie – thanks for sharing the link, I look forward to trying your recipe.

    Erica – I agree with you!

    Stevie – Thanks. I agree, I will not be bathing with it any time soon. I have no idea why Alex decided to bath in it other than possibly that was what he was shown and he adopted the idea. Stevie, as you are in the Bay Area – the photo I took was of a saffron supplier in the Mission – they might have the different types. Otherwise I think you are right, on line it is.

  20. August 24, 2012 at 4:40 AM

    Getting executed for messing with saffron – wow! I received a gardening catalogue just yesterday offering “saffron” plants – just hope it’s the real stuff!
    crystal recently posted..Bread and Butter Pudding

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