Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, comes from the red stigmas of an autumn-flowering crocus, Crocus sativus, which ranges in color from a light lilac to a deep violet. Each flower produces only 3 stigmas and they must be picked by hand. It takes 250,000 stigmas or “threads” to make a pound, which accounts for why the spice is so expensive by weight.
Historically, picking saffron threads was first depicted in Bronze age drawings. The first written mention of it was in a Greek botanical paper in the 7th century BC, and saffron was mentioned in ancient Chinese texts in 200-300 BC. The stigmas are used for flavoring, dying textiles, perfumes, medicines, and body washes. Alexander the Great used saffron in his baths to cure battle wounds. The first reference to using saffron in cooking was in Persia (Iran). Today Iran and Spain produce approximately 90 percent of the world’s saffron, although Greece, India and Morocco also contribute to production.
Saffron grows best in semi-arid land and climates which offer generous spring rains and hot summers. In the spring, the corms or bulbs are planted 3-6 inches deep in fields where they receive full sunlight. In October, the corm sprouts and the flowers bloom at dawn. During the day they begin to wilt, and harvesting is very intense as the period when the stigmas can be picked only lasts about two weeks. The stigmas are then dried and graded.
Saffron is graded according to color, taste and flavor according to the International Organization for Standardization. However, many growers, traders and consumers prefer to sample saffron threads for taste, aroma, pliability, and other traits in a manner similar to that used by wine connoisseurs. The best qualify of saffron is deep red and is called “coupe” for Spanish and Kashmiri saffron, “sargol” for Iranian. The next grade “Mancha” if Spanish or Kashmiri, or “poshal” or “kayam” if Iranian, has a proportion of thicker, yellow threads mixed in. Lesser grades have a brownish color and stubby, untidy threads. Occasionally the quality of saffron is adulterated by mixing in extraneous substances like beets, pomegranate fibers, red-dyed silk fibers, or the saffron crocus’s tasteless and odorless yellow stamens. Powdered saffron can be diluted with turmeric or paprika and be sold to unsuspecting buyers at market stalls.
Saffron threads break down chemically when exposed to light and oxygen and therefore must be stored in air-tight containers. To capture the maximum flavor, the threads should be steeped in liquid before use.
Saffron is as important ingredient of large number of Ayurvedic medicines. It is used for acne, apoplexy, arthritis, asthma, colic, cough dyspepsia, insect bites and stings, mental disorders, painful menstruation, and sore throat. It is reported to reduce inflammation and is considered helpful for enlargement of liver and infection of urinary bladder and kidneys. If soaked overnight in water and administered with honey it acts as diuretic. Pounded with ghee it is used in diabetes. Saffron oil is used for external application in uterine sores.
In regulated doses, it is said to increase appetite and to ease headaches and hangovers. Administered in high doses it makes patient unconscious.
Due to presence of crocetin it indirectly helps to reduce cholesterol level in the blood and severity of atherosclerosis, thus reducing the chances of heart attacks. It may be one of the prime reasons that in Spain, where Saffron is consumed liberally, incidence of cardio-vascular diseases is quite low.
Saffron is rich in many vital vitamins, including vitamin A, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, and Vitamin C. It adds a musky, pungent flavor to foods from paella and risotto to bouillabaisse. In Sweden, saffron buns and cakes are made for the festival of light, St. Lucia’s Day, December 13. Too much saffron in a recipe, however, can make the food taste bitter and medicinal.
Norman, Jill. Herbs and Spices: The Cook’s Reference.