If saffron threads are so expensive, you may wonder, why bother? The answer is that the high price is misleading. Saffron itself is not terribly rare. It’s just that the work of extracting it from saffron stigmas is tedious and time-consuming. There’s a saying in Kashmir, where much of the world’s saffron is grown: “One hour to cut, one hour to dry, one hour to grind, four hours to polish.”
This explains why some people prefer to buy their saffron already processed into a powder or a thread. But if you’re at all curious about where things come from, it’s worth going back to their source. By knowing how something was made, you can better understand what it is and whether it’s worth having.
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Why is saffron so expensive? Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, and has been for centuries. A pound of saffron sells for thousands of dollars.
You’re probably wondering why a little thing like saffron can cost so much. After all, it’s just a flower—you can buy a bouquet at the grocery store for less than $10. So how can something that grows in the wild be worth so much more?
So when you’re shopping for saffron, you want to make sure you’re getting the real thing. The first thing to look for is the color—ideally you want saffron that has a rich red color, which indicates that it hasn’t been treated with chemicals.
And if you really love your food, then you should probably learn more about it!
Saffron originates from a purple (or red) flower, called the saffron crocus. Each flower must be handpicked to obtain its precious stigmas, which are dried to obtain the spice we know as saffron.
This type of work was usually done by women and girls, who would pick the flowers early in the morning and lay them out on trays to dry. The conditions were often unsanitary and workers were exposed to toxic dyes that colored their skin yellow, giving rise to the term “saffron mummies”.
As recently as the 1970s, most saffron was grown by individual farmers in parts of Europe and North Africa. Today over 90% of saffron is grown in Iran, with most production centered in Kashmir.* Its method of cultivation is labor intensive; it is estimated that one acre yields between 250 and 3,000 pounds of saffron threads.*
Saffron is among the world’s most costly spices by weight;* its price can range from US$500–1,500 per pound.* That makes it more expensive than silver, gold or platinum per pound.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world. It’s main ingredient, crocin, is a chemical compound that has a deep earthy and slightly metallic flavor. This compound is what gives saffron its distinctive taste and aroma. In fact, each tiny red thread contains 50-75 strands of stigmas from the plant and it takes around 150 flowers to produce just one gram of this precious spice.
Tasting and smelling are two of our most powerful senses; we see and hear far less than we think and even less than we imagine. We experience taste through the action of chemicals on specialized cells in our mouths called taste buds which send signals to our brain for processing. The experience of smell comes from molecules in the air being absorbed by receptors in our nasal cavity which send information to our brain stem where some of these signals are routed up to higher areas of the brain for analysis.
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Saffron gained a reputation for being more valuable than gold, and its price increased accordingly. Because it was so expensive, it was also sometimes used as a way to mark the wealth of the person who was eating or drinking it. It is said that Cleopatra dissolved saffron in her bathwater so that everyone would know how rich she was.
In today’s world, saffron is still expensive, but not that expensive; it sells for about $5 a gram. That puts it at the same level of expense as vanilla extract, which you probably have in your kitchen right now. Saffron comes in long strands called threads, which are gathered by hand, and each thread has to be picked out of the flower stigmas by hand. That’s why it is so expensive to buy.
Saffron, the spice that makes paella and other dishes so yellow and delicious, costs more per ounce than gold. When people see a pinch of saffron in something they are about to eat, it is easy to assume the chef used far too much. In fact, however, a little bit goes a long way.
Saffron grows in the stigmas of a purple-flowered plant called Crocus sativus. C. sativus is grown all over the world, but only in select locations does it produce the red stigmas that are dried and made into saffron. The most expensive saffron comes from Iran, where a family named Asadi has tended its fields for centuries. It takes 200 flowers to make one pound of saffron, and each flower must be picked by hand. Even at this high price, however, Russia produces twice as much as Iran does.
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, and it has been for thousands of years. The reason for that is that it’s really hard to grow. The stigmas of each flower only yield three red threads, which you then have to painstakingly pluck by hand. That’s why saffron was such a luxury item in the Middle Ages, when it was used as an ingredient in perfume and other luxury goods, and why it’s still so expensive today.
What does saffron taste like?
It tastes like eating a crocus. If you’ve ever seen a crocus flower, you know they’re not much to look at — just a bunch of plain purple flowers on kind of a wimpy stem. But if you’ve ever tasted them, you know they’re delicious. Saffron tastes like that: kind of plain on its own, but delicious if you know what to do with it. It can give any dish an earthiness and depth that no other spice can match.”