Mother Earth Living

The Saffron Mystique

This legendary spice offers rewards to cooks and gardeners alike.
By Ellen Szita
February/March 2001
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Saffron harvesting is still done by hand.
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I opened my e-mail one day in 1998 to learn that an American was looking for 900,000 saffron corms to plant in Zimbabwe. Since then, potential commercial saffron growers in countries as diverse as Belize, Thailand, Chile, South Africa, Malawi, Moldavia, Hungary, and Kenya have contacted me for cultivating and processing information. Since 1985, when I began exploring saffron, I have witnessed a renaissance of global interest in this spice’s cultivation and use.

Saffron comes from the three red stigmas of the saffron crocus bloom, which must be harvested by hand daily during the short, frenzied flowering season. 

Enriching art and cuisine 

Saffron, the spice and natural dye, has always been available to Americans. The irony is that Americans are so misinformed about saffron that it has been easy for poor-quality and adulterated saffron to be sold here at inflated prices. While such abuses discourage many potential fans from buying and enjoying saffron, they have also provided the impetus for others to grow their own—or seek it from more reputable sources and at more reasonable prices.

Saffron releases its unique aroma, flavor, and color only with special treatment. The stigmas must be harvested by hand daily during the short, frenzied season of the crocus’ bloom. Then they must be dried over slow heat. The dried stigmas are what we know in the kitchen as saffron threads.

In the middle ages, praises were sung to saffron about its rich source of yellow dye. In the city of Mardin, in southern Turkey, the Saffron Monastery’s yellow walls, dyed with saffron, still stand. In Istanbul, I saw a 200-year-old Azerbaijani flat-weave carpet dyed partially with saffron, and it took my breath away.

If you think of saffron as a yellow dye, rather than as the stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), then it is easy to confuse it with calendula, also known as pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), and turmeric (Curcuma longa). All of these plants also produce yellow dyes and have been substituted for saffron in cooking. I have been served bright yellow “saffron” dishes—even in saffron-producing countries—that were absolutely flavorless and didn’t come within a mile of the taste or aroma of genuine saffron.

A measurement of saffron’s coloring power also provides those who purchase it for cooking a way of measuring its authenticity and potency. The color-bearing compound, crocin, is coincidentally the chemical precursor for picrocrocine and safranal, which are responsible for saffron’s flavor and aroma. This means the higher the concentration of crocin in the stigma, the stronger the flavor and aroma of the saffron. The International Organization for Standardization requires a minimum coloring strength of 190 for any brand of saffron sold as top quality. The best saffron measures between 220 and 260.

A second bit of information from saffron research is meaningful to home cooks. In 1987, Japanese researchers discovered that the five major biologically active components so far identified in saffron were located only in the stigmas. Saffron traders therefore cheat the consumer when they leave part of the pale yellow style attached to the stigmas in order to add weight. When Spain dominated the American market, I used to think it was better to purchase saffron threads with pale yellow styles mixed in, as long as there weren’t too many, since the best Spanish Mancha saffron always had some styles included. Their presence assured me that an old or inferior grade of saffron had not been spruced up with red dye. However, now that Iranian saffron is flooding our market, this criteria is no longer useful. The best grade of Iranian saffron sold here, called Sargol, is always completely red. The best-quality Indian, Italian, French, and Swiss saffron threads are also completely red.

Saffron production 

Of sixteen saffron-producing countries, only Iran, Greece, Morocco, and India sell to the United States. Saffron growers are usually not saffron exporters. Unreasonable saffron pricing and other abuses can usually be linked to middlemen. So-called Italian saffron sold in the United States, for example, is no such thing. It is saffron from Greece, Spain, or Iran powdered and packaged in Milan. Italian-grown saffron is for sale in Italy—in Sicily, Sardinia, Tuscany, and the Abruzzo—but most of the production is used to make Italian digestives, cordials, and regional dishes.

Last year Iran produced 150 tons of saffron, making it by far the dominant source. Most Americans still view Spain as the major saffron producer, but its production has been in serious decline for more than a decade, making it necessary for the Spanish to import large amounts from Iran, Greece, and Morocco for re-export. I was shocked when in 1999, I had to search for a saffron field in Consuegra, a town in Spain’s La Mancha region. For thirty-seven years, Consuegra has hosted Spain’s Annual Saffron Harvest Festival, the oldest such festival in the world. When I visited in 1985 for the saffron harvest season, the entire landscape was lavender with the blooms of this crocus.

Botany and cultivation 

Saffron begins with a corm, typically called a bulb (the two are slightly different botanically). These corms sprout once a year, producing from two to twelve flowers. The slender, pale yellow style inside each flower branches into three deep red stigmas. These stigmas are harvested, then dried over low heat; then you have saffron threads. Out of more than eighty identified types of crocus, fall-blooming C. sativus has been the only one planted to produce commercial saffron so far.

Beginning in 1980, Hebrew University of Jerusalem began a comprehensive series of studies on saffron cultivation. The university’s goal was to mechanize saffron harvesting and thus lower the price of both the cultivation and the spice. Initially, researchers planted both C. sativus and C. cartwrightianus. After the initial study, the Israelis decided there were no significant differences between the growing habits of the two crocuses. C. cartwrightianus corms are available in some American nursery catalogs and are often advertised as a source for saffron. C. sativus has only lavender flowers, but C. cartwrightianus comes in lavender and white; both produce deep red stigmas. If you are considering home cultivation, I would recommend trying some of each.

The saffron crocus reproduces through the formation of cormlets, another way to distinguish it from safflower, which grows from seed. The baby corms form around the mother corm, which eventually dies. For the corm to flower the same year it is planted, it must measure at least an inch wide when planted. Saffron trials of the past decade in India, Israel, New Zealand, Italy, and Iran have shown that the size and weight of the corms planted has a direct correlation to saffron yield.

After three to four years, farmers carefully remove the saffron corms from the field. After cleaning them and checking them for signs of fungus, they replant the corms in new ground. When planted in June, July, or August, corms flower for about fifteen days in late fall. Even if corms are planted simultaneously, they will bloom over a four- to six-week period in what many growers call “waves.” One New Zealand grower tells a story about his first saffron wave—he had to have stigmas plucked from 25,000 flowers in a single day!

The grasslike leaves of the C. sativus plant can appear before, after, or at the same time as flowering. If the leaves, which feed the cormlets, are cut while they are still green, the crocus may not flower the following year. Instead, growers allow the leaves to wither in the field. In May, following the fall harvest, the leaves are cut and stored for cattle feed or left to compost.

Growing your own 

C. sativus is a perennial that can flower in the Northern hemisphere any time between early September and mid–December, depending on rainfall and temperatures. A noticeable dip in temperatures and sufficient rain the preceding spring and summer determine whether flowers bloom each fall. Similar to other crocus, the flowers grow directly out of the soil, not from a stem. Corms should be planted in late summer or early fall in full sun to light shade. Well-drained soil is the single most important element for saffron crocus. To assure good drainage, some growers recommend raised beds, while others mix sand in with the soil. When planting in pots, place styrofoam pebbles or similar material in the bottom to help with drainage. Cow manure is most often recommended as a fertilizer. Set the corms root side down about 4 inches deep and 6 inches apart, because they multiply rapidly. After planting, no additional care is required except weeding.

If you plan to cultivate saffron for your own pleasure, the library and the Internet will be your best friends. Search for both C. sativus and saffron, and focus on the scientific and agricultural literature for the fullest detail. You will find contradictory information, so it is important to read broadly, searching for the most current information; so much is changing in this field every year.

Shop around for corms before buying, just as you would if seeking quality saffron. Prices for both vary wildly. In both cases, the more you buy at one time, the more you save. Corms range from fifteen cents to two dollars a piece, depending on the quantity you order. I pay thirty-six dollars per ounce for excellent Iranian and Greek saffron threads and powder—$1.26 a gram. This translates to about thirty-one cents per recipe to feed up to six—or five cents per serving.

You must order saffron corms early. Garden nurseries always run out because saffron has become so popular in recent years. January is not too early to get your name on an order list for delivery in August, which is the soonest that saffron crocus is available from overseas.

The weather, corms, and soil preparation could be perfect and you could still lose your saffron crop. Rabbits, squirrels, field mice, gophers, slugs, insects, and birds love saffron corms and stigmas, so hardware cloth or chicken wire are recommended as linings in your saffron beds.

Assuming you have planted a field of saffron crocus, and they have bloomed beautifully, you harvest, joyfully: your right hand folds back the petals and male stamens of the flower and your left thumbnail pinches off the three precious stigmas, the only part of the plant which becomes saffron. Even so, you are still at risk of having wasted your efforts if you do not immediately dry the fresh, wet stigmas at a low temperature, around 100°F. Dried properly, the fresh stigmas will lose 80 percent of their original weight.

Processing your saffron 

Saffron stigmas are odorless in the field. Subjecting them to low, steady heat causes the chemical reaction that releases saffron’s characteristic earthy aroma. In the process, however, you risk losing flavor by scorching or burning. Saffron growers the world over disagree on the best way to process the stigmas, although obviously many are getting it right, based on their end product. The only way to find success in processing your own saffron stigmas is to read and experiment. That’s what all the new growers have done—but most guard their methods like diamonds, as they form the bulk of their competitive edge.

The traditional Spanish method involves toasting over spent charcoal fires. The stigmas are layered in fine wire mesh sieves, which are suspended over the coals. The single Spanish company now producing hydroponically grown saffron, which will be available for sale beginning in 2003, uses infrared light to zap the stigmas in seconds. In India, saffron stigmas are sun-dried on cloth. Iran is experimenting with a solar heating system for drying a large volume of stigmas at one time. In Greece the farmers make large, fine mesh screens, cover them with absorbent paper, and leave the stigmas to dry in dark basement rooms heated by stoves. In Sardinia and Turkey, some farmers line round copper pans with stigmas and place them near open wood-burning fireplaces in their living rooms.

Whenever I have tested saffron dried on kitchen towels in the open air, it has been almost flavorless and has produced little color. It appears that a simple fruit dehydrator, set at about 100° F, would be an efficient, effective home method. Dehydration is used in Pennsylvania, Germany, Sardinia, and New Zealand.

Ellen Szita is a San Francisco-based author, writer, lecturer, photographer, and communications consultant. She is currently writing a consumer guide on saffron and has hosted a saffron website, www.saffroninfo.com, since 1997. 


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