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Saffron is derived from the Saffron Crocus Flower species Crocus sativus which belongs to the Iris Family Iridaceae. The parts used for culinary purposes are the stigma or style: the central yellow threads which are, in fact, the female sexual organs of the flower. As there are very few stigma in any one flower, it takes 150,000 flowers to produce one kilogram of dried saffron, making it the most expensive spice in the world.


Origin and History of Saffron


Saffron probably first appeared  in Crete, Greece. An origin in Western or Central Asia has been disproved by botanical research and there is evidence that it was used in Ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) over 5,000 years ago and  as Saffron is the triploid form of a species found in Eastern Greece, Crocus cartwrigthianus  this would prove very ancient trade between the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.

The Ebers Papyrus (Ca 1550 BC)  mentioned it as an ingredient in remedies for kidney problems and  is well documented in the Bhavprakash Nikhantu, the Ayurvedic Bible which is as old as the Indian culture for healing a variety of diseases and the Greeks considered saffron to be the essence of youth and life, whilst the Ancient Chinese attributed saffron with considerable medicinal properties and drank it as a tea for almost any ailment.

Because of the high cost and labour intensive means of gathering Saffron, it has led to unscrupulous merchants "doctoring" pure saffron, adding safflower or marigold petals, or soaking the real threads in oil to add weight. In fact in the 1400's in Germany,  rigid  inspections became the practice, the penalty for falsification being just as harsh with the guilty parties burned alive with their false saffron.

Today, saffron is cultivated from the Western Mediterranean to India. Spain and Iran are the largest producers, accounting for more than 80% of the world's production.

Cultivation of Saffron


Whilst it is possible to grow saffron yourself, we recommend that unless you can be 100% sure of the corms you are buying, you don't attempt it due to the similarity of the saffron crocus to the autumn crocus Colchicum spp,  the latter being poisonous if eaten.


Commercially grown saffron is produced from corms as the plants are sterile and don't produce seeds. These are divided after the plant dies back once it has flowered. Each crocus corm produces two to nine flowers per season, and each flower has three long red-orange stigma branches, attached together at the base.  The stigma are hand harvested in the Autumn during the short flowering season.


Cooking with Saffron

Saffron is used all over the world  to flavour and colour foods from Spanish paella to French bouillabaisse to Arabic lamb and chicken dishes to Indian dessert sauces, as well as in many Swedish and Cornish recipes, but as it's such an expensive spice, it's important to get every bit of flavour out of it. This can be achieved by either toasting and powdering the threads or steeping the saffron ahead of time in hot water or broth.

To Toast Saffron threads, place the strands in a dry frying pan  about 30 seconds only  or until they begin to give off an aroma. Be very careful not to burn them. Cool and crush finely between two spoons. They can also be dried out in a microwave, again for 30 seconds on high.  You can buy ready powdered saffron.

When using whole threads,  steep them in hot water for at least 15 minutes to extract as much flavour as possible. The longer better - up to 4 hours. If using alcohol, there's no need  to heat it. Always store  saffron in an airtight container in a dark place so it stays viable for longer. You can also buy liquid saffron.

Click here for lots of recipes using Saffron

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