Cooking with saffron has been a prized practice since prehistory. This golden, precious spice is the epitome of an artisanal treat.
The temptation to mess with the world’s priciest spice will always prove too strong for some. With the current retail price at $1,500 to $5,000 a pound, even a tiny amount of tampering can rake in a tidy profit. Ten years ago in Bradford, England, tests revealed that almost a quarter of saffron on sale had been adulterated. Importers had diluted the precious scarlet stigmas by mixing in worthless yellow stamens and adding artificial coloring. Worldwide, it is estimated that 5 to 8 percent of the spice is tainted in this and other ways.
But what makes saffron so expensive in the first place? Each purple flower of the Crocus sativus plant produces three trumpety stigmas of golden red. One pound of saffron requires 50,000 to 75,000 of the blossoms and 70,000 to 200,000 of the dried threads—and a lot of patience and dexterity. There are no shortcuts, no machines to ease the load. It’s a family affair, all done by hand much as it was hundreds of years ago, from the planting and the picking to the plucking and the toasting. And it’s a race against the clock. During harvest time (from late October to mid-November), the blossoms must be picked between sunrise and 10 a.m., and the stigmas removed immediately before they disintegrate into a sticky mess. Drying methods vary, but in Spain they are toasted in a sieve over charcoal embers before being put into airtight containers and stored in a cool, dark place. An artisanal spice, if ever there were one.
Turn out a tin of saffron onto your palm. Admire the fragile tangle of deep red threads. Hold it up to your nose and inhale its delicate but distinctive perfume—hay-like, honeyed, bitter-sweet. What you are contemplating is not only spice-as-work-of-art, spice-as-labor-of-love, but also spice-as-ancient-history—even pre-history. Cave art in present-day Iraq shows that 50,000 years ago, our ancestors used saffron pigments to paint their beasts yellow. It was the ancient Minoans, however, who first cultivated the wild crocus some 3,500 years ago—as evidenced by the saffron frescoes found on the island of Santorini. One painting shows young girls and monkeys picking the blossoms under the watchful eye of a goddess; another depicts a woman using saffron to treat a bleeding foot.
In the Old Testament, saffron is among the sweet-smelling spices in the Song of Solomon. Cleopatra used it as an aphrodisiac, a perfume and a tanning agent. In Greek mythology, a love affair gone bad between the nymph Smilax and mortal Krokus ended with him being turned into the plant bearing his name. The Greeks and Romans used the spice to dye their clothes (and hair!); to freshen up their public squares and theatres; to embellish their wine; and as an offering to their gods. When Buddha Siddartha died, his followers dyed their robes with pungent saffron.
Since just about forever, saffron seems to have been regarded as something of a panacea. Egyptian physicians used it to treat stomach upsets; Pliny the Elder rated it for everything from insomnia, hangovers and toothache to bruising, anxiety and menstrual pains; and in Tudor England, it was prized as a Prozac-like pick-me-up. The philosopher-cum-scientist Francis Bacon raved about the stuff: “Saffron … removes melancholy and uneasiness, revives the brain, renders the mind cheerful, and generates boldness.” Liberal use of the spice in “sweetmeats and broth,” he reckoned, was what made the English so “spritely.”
In Eastern medicines, too, saffron played—and still plays—a star role. Ayurvedic texts prescribe the “drug” for colds and coughs, flatulence, urinary problems, acne and other skin disorders. And for menstrual cramps, how about warm milk flushed with saffron and sweetened with a little honey? So simple, so soothing. Sufferers of arthritis may also find that saffron milk eases their aches and pains. Even Western medicine has started to take saffron seriously, with recent studies suggesting that it may be useful in treating cancer and heart disease, and in slowing down blindness.
Looks good, smells good, tastes good, does good; it’s not hard to see how the demand—and the price—for such a wonder substance could skyrocket. Phoenician traders first brought saffron to Europe but after the fall of the Roman Empire, cultivation stopped. Then came the Moors. From the 8th century onward, they invaded and settled in North Africa, Spain, Portugal, parts of France and Sicily, bringing with them loads of foodstuffs and crops—including C. sativus. The Arabic love of the spice rubbed off into local cuisines—eventually giving us saffron-gilded dishes such as Spanish paella, French bouillabaisse, Italian risotto, and Moroccan tagine.
When the Black Death struck in the 14th century, demand for the spice really went through the roof. Widely used to treat the disease, saffron now had to be imported from the East and shipped into Central Europe from places like Rhodes and Venice. Conflicts between noblemen and the merchants were common and throughout the 1300s the saffron trade went hand-in-hand with mass piracy and theft.
As a result of all this hassle, Basel (and later Nuremberg) decided to grow their own, which put a stop to piracy—but not to adulteration. Unscrupulous dealers tried all sorts of tricks: lacing the powdered spice with turmeric; mixing the threads with safflower stigmas and marigold petals; adding red-dyed silk fibers; and upping the weight by soaking the filaments in honey or glycerin. Finally, enough was enough. The authorities enacted the Safranschou code. From then on, anyone caught corrupting saffron would be fined, imprisoned or even executed—and rather creatively at that. In Nuremberg in 1444, one chap was roasted over a fire of his own saffron, while two others were buried alive with the dodgy merchandise.
A form of the Safranschou code is still with us in the International Standard Organization (ISO), a quality-control body that has set standards in color, flavor and labeling since 1993. Anything earning a score of 190 is classified as Grade 1 saffron. As a customer, this is what you’re looking for.
A Spaniard will say the best saffron comes from Spain, an Iranian from Iran, and an Indian from Kashmir. Spanish saffron is prized for its delicate color and mellow flavor, while saffron from Iran (the producer of more than 90 percent of the world’s supply) and Kashmir is said to be more intense and pungent.
C. sativus needs hot, dry summers and cold winters and will be hardy in the United States in Zones 6 to 9. If the bulbs—called corms—are planted around September, they should bloom in late fall of the following year. The soil needs to be fairly sandy to allow good drainage and corms should be planted two to three inches deep and two to three inches apart. Because it is absolutely essential that they don’t sit in wet ground during their dormant period (April to September), plant the bulbs in containers that can be moved indoors. How many do you need? One flower produces three threads—roughly the amount you need per person per dish. So if a family of four eats a saffron-based dish once a month, do the math: You’ll need 48 plants.
Because of its high price, a mystique has grown up around saffron, making us think we need to be some kind of cutting-edge chef to handle it properly. This is not true. Do not be afraid of it. The secrets of the spice are there for anyone to unwrap, though you will need to experiment: to get used to handling and preparing it, to get a taste and a nose for its singular flavor and aroma, to get a feel for the right quantity and strength.
The other thing to remember is that a little goes a very long way. Some recipes call for a whole teaspoon of the stuff. Saffron is a subtle spice and you just do not need this much. Apart from making it costly to use, overkill will result in a bitter, metallic tang. An $8, 1-gram jar with around 450 threads is enough for a whole handful of dishes and cakes and teas. My Spanish husband (who learned from his mother) uses no more than 10 to 12 strands for a six-person paella. In this rice dish, the spice provides a background note to other complex flavors, while in cakes and sauces, for example, it is the floral, honeyed tones of the saffron that dominate.
To bring out the full flavor of the spice, grind the threads and/or steep them in a little warm water, milk or other cooking liquid. Twenty minutes to two hours is good. Some recipes say to soak overnight. You can use “instant” powdered saffron, but you’ll lose out on some of the magic.
The more confident you become, the more you can incorporate saffron into your everyday kitchen. Throw a few threads into your stock, blend into mayonnaise, drizzle over poached fruit, add to a glaze for roast meat. And try these recipes.
Theresa O’Shea is a British freelance journalist who lives in the south of Spain and adores Spanish cooking.
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