Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus Sativus, commonly known as the Saffron Crocus. The Saffron Crocus can survive long hot summers and cold winters with temperatures as low as -10ºC. It reproduces by corms, which must be broken up and replanted each year. It is an autumn flowering perennial plant which usually bears up to four vivid crimson flowers. It is the stigmas of these flowers that are dried and used as seasoning and colouring in many different styles of cooking.
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world as each stigma has to be collected by hand. To glean 450g of dry Saffron it requires the harvest of 50,000–75,000 flowers and forty hours of labour are needed to pick 150,000 flowers. The stigmas are dried quickly upon extraction and sealed in airtight containers. Saffron is native to Greece where it was first cultivated, although it does now also grow in Southwest Asia, Europe and America. The Saffron Crocus originated in Crete, although Iran now accounts for about 90% of the world’s production.
Saffron is slightly bitter in taste and carotenoid gives it its golden colour traditionally used in cooking and the textile industry. Despite attempts at quality control and standardisation, an extensive history of Saffron adulteration, particularly among the cheapest grades, continues to be a problem. Typical methods include mixing in extraneous substances like beets, pomegranate fibres, red-dyed silk fibres, or the Saffron Crocus’s tasteless and odourless yellow stamens. Other methods included dousing Saffron fibres with viscid substances like honey or vegetable oil. However, powdered Saffron is more prone to adulteration, with turmeric, paprika, and other powders used as diluting fillers. Adulteration can also consist of selling mislabelled mixes of different Saffron grades. Varieties from Spain, including the trade names “Spanish Superior” and “Creme”, are generally mellower in colour, flavour and aroma. “Spanish Saffron” is actually ‘safflower’ and of course is an indispensable ingredient in such famous dishes as Paella. Almost all Saffron grows in a belt bounded by the Mediterranean in the west and the rugged region encompassing Iran and Kashmir in the east. In recent years, Afghan cultivation has risen. Prohibitively high labour costs and abundant Iranian imports mean that only select locales continue the tedious harvest in Austria, England, Germany, and Switzerland.
Crushed Saffron threads are soaked in hot, but not boiling water, for several minutes prior to use in cuisine. This helps release the beneficial components. Saffron’s aroma is often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste has also been noted as hay-like and sweet. Saffron also contributes a luminous yellow-orange colouring to foods. Saffron has also been used as a fabric dye, particularly in China and India, and in perfumery. It is used for religious purposes in India, and is widely used in cooking in many cuisines.
Saffron has a long medicinal history as part of traditional healing. It was used as a remedy to sleeplessness and to reduce hangovers caused by wine and was also used to perfume bathing and as an aphrodisiac.Several modern research studies have hinted that the spice has possible anticarcinogenic (cancer-suppressing) characters. Saffron stigmas, and even petals, may be helpful for depression and early studies show that Saffron may protect the eyes from the direct effects of bright light and retinal stress, apart from slowing down macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.