Saffron is one of the world’s most expensive spices. It makes food taste a little bit sweet, a little bit like hay. Some people describe it as earthy or grassy.
Taste is obviously subjective, but according to one study, saffron is almost twice as expensive as silver.
Saffron also has some interesting properties that make it worth its price. It’s believed to have medicinal properties and it has been used for centuries in religious ceremonies and to treat depression.
But how do you get saffron? A popular misconception is that the spice comes from the saffron crocus flower. It actually comes from a small red thread inside the flower known as stigma, which links to the plant’s female organs, called ovaries. The stigmas are handpicked and dried to make saffron threads.
The reason we’re talking about this today is because there’s a new Kickstarter out called “Saffron: The Golden Thread.” (I love the name.) The team behind it wants to explore where saffron comes from and how it is grown and harvested in different parts of the world. They want to make a documentary about it but they need money for materials, travel and other expenses. If you’re interested
Saffron is a spice that’s native to the Middle East. It’s grown nowhere else in any quantity and it’s been used as medicine and seasoning for thousands of years. It is made from the dried stigmas of a particular crocus flower. The stigmas are collected by hand, making saffron one of the most labor-intensive spices by weight.
Saffron is far more exotic than we usually think. It comes from a flower, Crocus sativus, that originates in the Eastern Mediterranean and Southern Europe. The stigmas are harvested by hand and then dried to produce the spice.
Tiny quantities of saffron were traded in ancient times, including a mention of it on Linear B tablets from Pylos (1500 BC). It never reached North Africa or the Americas, because there were no large areas of open land for its cultivation.
The ancient Greeks called it “crocus” which means yellow-colored. They used saffron in various ways such as for dying cloth, for perfume and as a folk remedy for many illnesses including cancer, menstrual cramps and male impotence. They also gave it to horses to induce sweating when they believed that too much heat was the cause of diseases like fever and pneumonia.
To keep it from losing its color, they would preserve it in diluted honey or vinegar. Like pepper, saffron was among the first spices exported to Asia by Arab merchants along with cinnamon, cardamom and ginger.
The spice saffron is made from the dried stigmas of the crocus flower. Like all spices, it has to be harvested by hand. It takes about 70,000 flowers to make one pound of saffron. That’s about 130 flowers for each saffron thread. Since the flowers need to be picked by hand, we can imagine that there are seven people around a field of crocuses, picking crocuses as quickly as they can. Seven people take about an hour to pick a pound of saffron.
The most expensive spice in the world is Indian Red Saffron, which can cost more than $30,000 per pound. By contrast, some other foods sold at Costco are:
-Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner (1 lb) $3.99
-Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes Cereal (1 lb) $2.99
-Gatorade Powder Mix (1 lb) $7.49
-Campbell’s Homestyle Chicken Noodle Soup (1 qt) $2.59
-Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese Spread (7 oz) $3.89
-Coca Cola Classic 12 pack cans (1.25 lt.) $3
Saffron is a spice, but it’s not just a spice. It’s an orangey-yellow flower, harvested for its stamens and used in cooking and medicine.
This is different from many other spices that are actually dried plant parts. Cinnamon comes from bark, nutmeg from a tree nut, cloves from the skin of a flower bud. These are all flavorings that you’d recognize as flavors: cinnamon tastes like cinnamon; nutmeg tastes like nutmeg. They’re also familiar ingredients in cookies and cakes, which means that they’re part of our food culture. Saffron is not. You rarely see it in recipes outside of Indian or certain Mediterranean dishes (or boxed cake mixes).
You could use saffron instead of vanilla extract in a cake recipe–if you were willing to pay $500 per pound for the saffron (and if you have any left over). That’s the going rate; most good quality saffron costs $15 to $25 per pound. Just one gram will flavor five servings of paella or risotto; that’s $300 per serving. So it goes without saying that most people use vanilla extract instead of saffron. Vanilla isn’t as flavorful, but it’s also not nearly as expensive
Saffron crocus is a flower that blooms in fall. It has three delicate purple petals and three golden stigmas (the female parts of the flower). When dried and ground, the stigmas will produce a bright yellow-orange powder with a distinctive flavor.
And more importantly, saffron have been used as an herbal remedy for a variety of ailments ranging from depression to headaches, inflammation to menstrual cramps. This makes sense when you realize that saffron contains vitamin B6, iron, and amino acids. The only thing is that it’s expensive! In other words, saffron is made from humble beginnings: the stigma of a flower whose main claim to fame is being kind of pretty.
So how did saffron become so valuable?
The answer has to do with how it’s grown. Saffron is native to Southwest Asia and North Africa, so its cultivation had been limited by geography. But in the fifteenth century, the Spaniards invaded Morocco and brought home the secrets of growing this valued crop. Then they introduced it to Italy, where it was produced on a large scale for the first time.*
It’s hard not to think about Spanish conquistadors pillaging foreign lands and forcing their culture
Saffron is the red stigmas of a certain kind of crocus flower. The crocus is a native of the Mediterranean, and has been cultivated in Europe for over 3000 years. It was used then as now to flavor food and make perfume. But only the dried red stigmas were traded; the rest of the plant was worthless. This made it too expensive to grow in Asia, and so saffron was unknown there until modern times.
The Greeks called it “Crocus sativus,” Greek for “saffron,” because they thought it had medicinal properties; later Arab physicians put saffron into prescriptions for everything from eye diseases to snakebites. Maybe this was just because they liked its color, but at the time there was no way to tell: there is no artichoke or corn that looks like a crocus flower. So if you didn’t know what you were looking at you would have no way to know if your medicine worked or not.
The Greeks also called it “crocus,” which has led people to believe that saffron came from Crocus sativus, which it doesn’t. In Latin it was “crocodilium.” When Muslim scholars translated