Inside Our Food

Saffron | How it’s Grown

Growing up in India where saffron is synonymous with luxury, I knew saffron as the ‘we’re expecting guests’ spice. Today at €25,000 a kilogram, it is the most expensive item in my neighbourhood’s supermarket!  Let’s take a look at what makes saffron the most expensive spice in the world.

What is saffron?

Saffron comes from the flower of Crocus sativus (also known as saffron crocus). More specifically, from its stigmas and styles. Most historians speculate it was first domesticated in Iran, but south-western Greek islands remain strong contenders. Traders, conquerors, and world explorers introduced it to China, India, and the Middle East.1 From there, it travelled to Mediterranean Europe.1 At present, Iran, Greece, Morocco, India, Spain and Italy are the world’s top saffron producers.2

Saffron production

Saffron, as we know it today, cannot be produced without human intervention. The seeds produced by its flowers are sterile, making natural pollination impossible.3 The plant reproduces asexually via vegetative propagation. Cultivation is done through corms, which are bulb-like stems that grow under the soil. 3 The Crocus sativus plant likes dry, warm weather but tolerates light snow. Its favourite soil type has clay with a good mix of calcium carbonate and other organic matter.4

Harvesting saffron

Corms are sowed in summer, and the saffron crocus flowers are ready to be harvested mid to late autumn. The flowers must be harvested by hand, before or immediately after sunrise so that they are not damaged by direct heat from the sun. The flowers are very delicate, and many growers believe mechanical plucking damages the saffron crocus flowers.

Each flower produces only three stigmas. Once the flowers have been harvested, their stigmas must be plucked and dried for around 12 hours. It takes 15,000-16,000 flowers to produce 1 kilogram of saffron spice.5 In terms of labour, producing this amount takes 370–470 hours!5  It is this labour-intensive harvesting process that makes saffron so expensive.

Is your saffron high quality?

Of course, not all saffron is of the same quality. Colour, age, amount of non-stigma content, and pliability, among other things, determine quality and price. Given its high price, adulteration is quite common, unfortunately. In fact, it has been so common throughout history that in the Middle Ages, those found selling adulterated saffron in Europe were executed under the Safranschou code.6

Adulterants like beetroot or pomegranate are used to enhance red colour; silk fibres, oil, or wax are used to add bulk, and powdered saffron can be adulterated with turmeric and paprika.

Standardised laboratory tests have been developed in recent years to check quality. This is an external process, done by retailers or traders who buy in bulk. This means that if you purchase your saffron spice from a trustworthy source, you’re most likely getting good quality saffron. If you spot unusually cheap saffron, it could be adulterated.

How and why is saffron used?

Several cuisines around the world use saffron for its distinguished colour and aroma. It forms the backbone of several iconic dishes from around the world, such as the Spanish rice, meat and seafood dish Paella, the French stew Bouillabaisse, Italian rice dish Risotto Milanese, the Indian ice cream Kesar Kulfi, Pakistani rice and meat dish Biryani, and baked Iranian rice Tachin (just to name a few).

The intense yellow colour saffron creates in food is because of α-crocin, a carotenoid. α-crocin is also hydrophilic, meaning that it dissolves in water readily. Picrocrocin is another important compound and gives saffron its slightly bitter flavour. During the drying process, picrocrocin breaks down and turns into saffranal, the compound that makes saffron smell like it does: earthy and hay-like. 

Saffron in cosmetics & medicine

While saffron today is mostly used as a spice, it has a long history of being used in the preparation of cosmetics and medicines. Ancient Romans were known to steep saffron in their wine because they believed it prevented hangovers. It was also believed that the spice worked as a sedative, antispasmodic, expectorant, and aphrodisiac. Pharmacopoeias (written medicinal records) around the world have mentioned saffron for centuries.5

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