EVERYTHING a Gentleman Needs to Know about Saffron–the World’s Most Expensive Spice


The terms “herbs” and “spices” are oftentimes used interchangeably, but they should not be: Herbs are the flavor-enhancing, leafy portions of plants; while spices are the flavor-enhancing, non-leafy portions of plants—such as seeds, berries, flowers, bark, and roots. And while the growing of herbs has traditionally been uneventful, typically occurring in home gardens and upon sun-drenched window sills, the desire for spices, oftentimes insatiable, has shaped the course of history, igniting wars and inspiring explorations. The Crusades were arguably as much about spices as they were about religion; and it was Europe’s obsession with East Indian black pepper, for example, that resulted in the discovery of the New World.

Saffron is a spice: It is the dried stigmas of the flowers of the autumn-blooming Crocus sativus, (commonly referred to as “saffron crocus” or “fall crocus”), a member of the Iris family. And since time immemorial, saffron has been regarded as one of the great culinary and medicinal ingredients of the world, so much so that it inspired its own war—the 14-week-long Saffron War—during the 14th century. And at Nuremberg, attempts to curb the incidence of the adulteration of saffron resulted in the Safranschou Code, which made violations punishable by fines, imprisonment, or even death.

Ounce for ounce, gram for gram, saffron is, by weight, the world’s most expensive spice, primarily because its production is so labor-intensive. It is estimated that forty man-hours are required to hand-pick 75,000 crocus flowers, each containing only three stigmas (called “threads”), which must be carefully removed from the flower by hand, to produce one, single pound (454 grams) of saffron. Based on 2013 retail pricing, high-quality saffron can cost as much as $5,400 per pound (approximately 225,000 stigmas) or $12 per gram (approximately 500 stigmas). By usage, however, the spice is not prohibitively expensive since a little saffron goes a long way: a “generous pinch” of saffron (about 30 stigmas) can flavor, color, and impart a unique aroma into a large pot of paella or bouillabaisse, for example. One twelve-dollar gram of saffron, then, is sufficient to prepare approximately 16 meals for the typical family of four—at the reasonable cost of 80 cents’ worth of saffron per meal. And one ounce (28 grams) of saffron (or about 14,000 threads), which costs about $340, can prepare about 450 typical recipes in which saffron is a key ingredient.

The Cultivation of Saffron

Unknown in the wild, saffron is believed to have derived from a naturally occurring crocus, Crocus cartwrightianus (also known as “wild saffron”), which originated in Crete, where it is postulated that men, some time during the Bronze Age, selectively bred the plant in order to achieve longer stigmas, resulting in Crocus sativus, the saffron crocus. Because saffron crocus produces no viable seeds and is incapable of independent sexual reproduction, its propagation requires human intervention. Crocuses grow from bulbs called “corns.” Each year, the “mother corn,” via vegetative multiplication, produces about 10 “cornlets” which are unearthed by farmers, separated from the mother corn and each other, and replanted in order to develop into separate crocus plants. While a plant may live and bloom for more than a decade, most commercial farmers do not keep plants beyond five years. (In Italy, saffron is traditionally cultivated as an annual, mature corns being planted each autumn). The saffron crocus grows best in regions of the world, such as the Mediterranean, where there is friable land and generous spring rains, followed by hot, dry, sunny summers. Rain just prior to the mid-autumn blossoming increases saffron yields, but rains during the blooming period damages the delicate flowers. Harvesting saffron crocus is a time-sensitive affair: all blossoms appear within a 15-day period; and a flower must be picked the morning it opens, for by the end of the day, the flower will wilt, compromising its precious stigmas. [It has been said that a field filled with crocus blossoms is a sight every gentleman should behold at least once in his lifetime]. After the blossoms are collected, the stigmas are carefully removed and allowed to dry. Today, saffron is grown in many regions of the world, but 90 percent of the world’s production comes from Iran. Kashmir, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Azerbaijan, India, and Spain are also known for their production of saffron.

References to the trade and use of saffron date back four thousand years, and much of that storied past involves accounts of sellers attempting to defraud buyers by offering adulterated saffron. Even today, the best way to ensure the purchase of high-quality saffron is to know the characteristics of superior saffron and to buy it from reputable sources. Purchasing ground saffron is especially problematic since unethical traders are known to add other spices such as paprika, turmeric and annatto, as well as crocus stamens (the male portion of the crocus flower, which has no culinary value) and coloring, in order to increase volume. Not even price serves as a litmus test, for unscrupulous traders have been known to delight in receiving as much money for as little quality as possible. A gentleman, then, must know good saffron when he sees and tastes it.

The Regulating of Saffron

The commercial trade of saffron is regulated by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which requires ISO-approved, third-party testing and the labeling of saffron. Guided by a photospectometry report, the tester applies established minimum standards for the four grades of the spice—Category I being the highest, and Category IV being the lowest. The categorization is based on the coloring strength of the saffron since the coloring capacity of saffron, as determined by its chemical compound crocin, directly corresponds to the spice’s flavor (as determined by the chemical compound picocrocin ) and the spice’s aroma (as determined by the chemical compound safranal ). The minimum standards, expressed in “degrees,” for the coloring strength of saffron are: 80 (Category IV); 110 (Category III); 150 (Category II); and 190 (Category I). But the absolute best Category I saffron can attain a coloring strength significantly beyond 190, reaching heights such as 230 to 280 and even slightly higher. The ISO-determined coloring strength should be clearly marked on the container of saffron being purchased—even if the amount is one, single gram. The only part of the saffron crocus that produces the spice is the flower’s orange-red-colored stigma. And it is the saffron (whether sold as whole stigmas called “threads” or ground into powder) comprised primarily of the valuable stigmas that achieves the highest degrees of 250 and above. Saffron with the lowest allowable coloring strength of 80, then, receives such a categorization because though it meets the minimum accepted standards of saffron, it contains other materials—whether other parts of the flower, moisture, or even other extraneous materials such as dust, ash, or insect parts. In other words, the higher the coloring strength of saffron, the purer the saffron and the greater its aroma and flavor. And the value of saffron depends upon the convergence of those three qualities: color, aroma, and flavor. No saffron connoisseur would buy saffron with a coloring strength of less than 190 degrees.

The Preparing Saffron for Market

After the crocus blossoms have been hand-picked, their stigmas are carefully removed by hand. But since the orange-red stigmas (the culinarily valuable, female portion of the flower) are the uppermost extensions of the whitish-yellowish stamens (the culinarily worthless, male portion of flower), both the stigma and the stamen (the latter also called the “style”) are removed simultaneously from the flower. Producers of the highest quality saffron then carefully cut away the stamens from the precious stigmas, discarding the stamens. The stigmas are then allowed to dry. The stigmas that have been entirely cut away from any stamens are referred to as “coupe,” which means “cut” in French, or “sargol,” the Persian word which describes “cut” saffron. Some producers of lesser-quality saffron, however, leave the gastronomically worthless stamens attached to the precious stigmas. And while this approach is less labor-intensive, it results in an inferior overall product since the presence of the culinarily impotent stamens not only diminishes the per-volume coloring strength of the saffron, it also adulterates the saffron, serving, in effect, as “dead weight.” Some producers of saffron leave a tiny portion of the whitish-yellowish stamens attached to the orange-red stigmas to serve as verification to the naked eye that no dyes have been added to the saffron threads. (Some unscrupulous manufacturers have been known to dye the worthless stamens, passing them off as, or mixing them in with, the precious stigmas to the unwitting purchaser. But while the tiny, off-colored tip of stamen may serve to verify the authenticity of the stigma, it also serves to reduce the overall, per-volume coloring strength of the saffron. And while such a practice may have served its purpose in an era where saffron was not regulated by international standards, thereby being subject to countless fraudulent practices, the justification for the practice is today diminished in light of the existence of the ISO.

Purchasing Saffron

But the way for a gentleman to ensure the purchase of high-quality saffron is for him to know the characteristics of the spice. While ground saffron is as effective as whole stigmas, ground saffron is much more susceptible to adulteration. A gentleman should, therefore, purchase ground saffron only from the most reputable sources. Again, the only portion of the saffron crocus that produces the spice is the stigmas. And when purchasing stigmas, a gentleman should look for “threads” that have been completely cut away from the stamens. Stigmas of the saffron crocus are approximately three-eights to one-half inch in length and are of a deep, orange-red color when properly cured; the threads should be brittle to the touch such that they would crumble if agitated between the index finger and thumb; and saffron should have a fresh, hay-like aroma, with hints of honey. Since stigmas of the saffron crocus do not generally exceed one-half inch in length, any red threads that exceed that length are likely to be stigmas that have not been cut away from their stamens—and then have been dyed in order to have the stamen portion of the thread also appear as saffron. Also, threads that are sold as stigmas attached to the stamens are of not of the best quality since such saffron will necessarily have a lower coloring-strength capacity. Finally, saffron should not smell musty. A musty smell is the result of improperly dried saffron. And not only does moisture compromise the shelf life of the saffron, it also accounts for dead weight in a spice that is priced by weight.

Using Saffron

The best way to fully appreciate the flavor, aroma, and color of saffron in both sweet and savory contexts is to experience the spice through “tasting teas”—first sweetened with sugar, then seasoned with salt. Six threads of saffron should be steeped in one cup of hot water for about 30 minutes, allowing the chemical compounds of the spice to be released. In addition to observing the rich, golden-yellow color of the saffron-infused water, its aroma should also be inhaled and appreciated. Thereafter, one-half teaspoon of sugar should be added. Once the sugar is dissolved, the liquid should be sipped, savoring—and noting—its flavor. The same procedure should be followed with one-fourth teaspoon of salt, thereby intimately exposing a gentleman to the properties of saffron and how it influences foods.

Saffron—whether ground or in thread form—if properly stored in an air-tight container and kept away from light, can last for years. (The spice is prone to absorbing odors, so the container in which saffron is stored should be clean and odor-free). The grinding of saffron threads into powdered form activates the chemical compounds of the spice, rendering it suitable for direct inclusion into recipes without any further preparation. Once ground saffron is added to a recipe, its color-, flavor-, and aroma-enhancing attributes are immediately realized. But saffron in thread form slowly—from a minimum of 20 minutes to beyond 20 hours—releases its chemical compounds when infused in alcohol, warm liquids such as water or milk, or in acidic liquids such as vinegar or fruit juices. (Because saffron is water-soluble, it should not be added to fat in order to release its properties). A cook using saffron threads, then, must take into account the extra time that will be needed for the threads to release their attributes. (Adding dry threads into a dish that will be consumed shortly after it is cooked, then, results in the wasting of the precious saffron since it is unlikely that the full effect of each thread will have been realized before the dish is eaten. But in dishes that will be served several hours later, or even the following day, adding the dry threads to the dish can be effective). Some cooks insist that in the case of saffron, “good things come to those willing to wait,” for there is a particular visual effect added to many dishes when the saffron threads are visible.

Saffron is oftentimes imitated but never equaled. Several other spices impart golden-yellow coloring to food: annatto, turmeric, and safflower, for example. But those spices all have properties that are separate and distinct from those of saffron and should be enjoyed and appreciated in their own right, not as attempted substitutes for saffron. Traditionally, saffron serves as a complement to fish stock and bone marrow; to the herbs of rosemary, thyme, cilantro, and basil; to cinnamon; to almonds and pistachios; to apples, citrus, and tomatoes; to white wine and vinegar; to garlic and onions; and to potatoes and most grains such as rice and wheat. The golden color of many gourmet cheeses is derived from saffron, and the spice is an ingredient in many cakes and breads. Wooden utensils tend to absorb saffron, so it is best to use metal utensils when cooking with the spice. Saffron’s flavor is so unique that, rather than attempting to substitute it, it would be better not to prepare the dish if the spice is not available.

Saffron Varieties

Various regions of the world produce different cultivars of the saffron crocus, resulting in threads with distinct characteristics. Spanish saffron tends to be milder in taste and mellower in color than that from Italy, while the saffron of Iran is the most intense. And gentlemen-customers have their preferences: Some customers insist upon Pennsylvania Dutch saffron; while others regard Italy’s zafferano dell’Aquila, grown on only eight hectares in the Abruzzo region, near L’Aquila, as the most desirable because of its distinctive thread shape, pungent aroma, and intense color. Other connoisseurs declare the “Mongra” or “Lacha” saffron of Kashmir, with its dark, claret-colored threads, to be the best. While yet other gentlemen revere the saffron of the “boutique producers” of countries such as New Zealand, Switzerland, and England.

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