Worth more than its weight in gold, Saffron comes from a brilliant purple crocus originating from Greece. Frescoes depicting the flower dating to 7th century BC display its highly-esteemed legacy, but its utilization and trading has occurred for over 4000 years.
The reason that saffron, the most expensive spice in the world by a field and a globe, is so costly is due to its harvest methods. Although the crocus grows in abundance, in up to four flowers per plant during a good season, the spice is actually collected exclusively from its vibrant red stigmas, of which there are 3 per flower.
It takes around 170000 flowers to make only one pound of saffron, so a price between 2000 and 10000 dollars suddenly doesn’t sound so unreasonable. These prices are actually very low considering the requirements, probably and unfortunately due to the use of cheap labour in the countries where it is most commonly grown.
A cultivated saffron crocus does not exist naturally in the wild, but its origins most likely stem from the island of Crete through ancient plant breeding. Today however, the vast majority of saffron harvesting comes from Iran, with over 90% of production.
Stigmas are collected (always delicately hand-picked) and dried during late Autumn, when flowers suddenly burst radiantly from the ground, unlike North American varieties that are notably one of the first Spring flowers to emerge. Their fragrance, flavour and colour are attributed to compositions of picrocrocin and safranal.
Aside from culinary practises, saffron has been used for dyes, perfumes, drugs and teas. Its flavour is unique and non-replicable, often described as musky, warm, earthy and bitter. Medicinally it is known to assist with digestion, respiratory conditions, reduces blood pressure, relieves pain and tension and slows ageing.
Frauds are abundant, as most valuable items inspire. They are, however, easily identifiable. First of all, authentic saffron will always be expensive. If a cheap variety is located, it is most likely fake. Some reputable companies, typically of Iranian or Spanish origin, have grading systems and certifications to assist in quality purchases.
Ground saffron is often laced with cheaper spices, such as paprika or turmeric. Some also incorporate bark, or parts of the stigma that contain less of the desired compounds. In other words, purchases should always be of the long, in-tact version of the flower’s stigmas, in a very deep red colour with a slight yellow tip at one end. There are links I’ve shared at the bottom that can help you in better identifying the legitimate spice.
If you’re wondering how to incorporate saffron in foods aside from rice, stir-fries, pilafs, cookies and even in other desserts as a substitute for vanilla are good choices.
It’s difficult to find substantial information regarding the growing processes and whether they are organic. However, in the regions that most often are harvesting saffron, there is a higher chance that chemical fertilizers or pesticides are minimally, otherwise completely not, used.