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Often referred to as ‘red gold’, saffron is one of the most expensive and prized spices in the world. It’s made from the stigmas of the crocus sativus flower, commonly known as the ‘saffron crocus’. These vivid purple flowers grow in fields in Iran, Greece, Spain, France, Morocco and India. Each individual crocus has three stigmas and it is these that are prized for their rich red colour and unique flavour. Harvesting takes place in a few short weeks, when the flowers are picked at sunrise. The stigmas are then carefully removed from the petals before being dried. It takes approximately 200 to 250 crocus flowers to produce just one gram of saffron — that’s about quarter of a million flowers per kilo — which is why it is one of the most expensive spices in the world!
It’s believed that saffron is native to the Mediterranean area, Asia Minor and Iran. The spice has long been celebrated for its many health benefits. It was cultivated in Spain by the Arabs as far back as 961, and is mentioned in an English healing book in the 10th century. It was introduced to Cathay, or China, during the Mongol invasion and is mentioned in the Chinese materia medica which dates back to 1552. To read more about the health benefits of saffron, have a read of our blog post here.
In ancient India, saffron was used as a fabric dye, and has been used for royal garments in several different cultures. After Buddha died, saffron was appointed the official colour of his priests’ robes.
In Greek and Roman times, saffron was used as a perfume and scattered throughout the halls, courts, baths and theatres. It is said that when the Roman emperor Nero entered the city, the streets were scattered with saffron.
Saffron has been used for centuries in Persian, Arab, European and Indian cuisine. It has a subtle, fragrant and somewhat earthy taste, and although it’s hard to describe, it’s instantly recognisable in a dish.
You can find saffron sold as threads or in their ground form. When cooking with saffron threads, it’s best to grind or crush them first to bring out their colour and flavour. Another common way to use the threads is by steeping them in the cooking liquid — the longer you leave them in, the stronger the flavour and colour of your dish will be. Alternatively, grind the saffron threads in a mortar and pestle together with a little warm water and pour this elixir into your cooking. If using ground saffron, simply add a pinch to your dish.
Saffron is an essential ingredient in paella and bouillabaisse. It also works well in rice dishes like saffron rice, risotto and biryani, pasta, vegetables, tagines, meats, seafood and even desserts. In Persian cuisine, saffron is used in pollou, tahdig (crispy bottom layer of rice), stews, grilled chicken, sholeh zard (saffron rice pudding) and in sherbet and tea. Traditional Persian bastaniis a heavenly dessert of saffron and rosewater ice cream with bits of frozen cream and chopped pistachios.