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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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
Rouille – a saffron sauce that gives mayo the boot – via NYT
St. Lucia buns from Sweden