The ancient and mystical spice known as Saffron has been treasured by civilizations across thousands of years. On its journey through the ages, it has been at the centre of war, murder and treachery, and has caused economical booms and political conflicts.
Best known for its culinary use, saffron has also been utilised for medicine, currency, religious ceremonies, perfumes, tinctures, textiles, colourings and make-up.
So next time you pinch a few strands of this aromatic wonder to add a touch of magic to a recipe, take a few seconds to appreciate the weight of history behind the delicate prize between your fingertips.
What is saffron?
Saffron is the gold of the spice world. These delicate dried stigmas of the crocus flower are both expensive and indulgent, and just a pinch can add a touch of luxury to the simplest of dishes. Saffron has a bitter-sweet flavour and a unique metallic honey fragrance, and when used in cooking releases a striking golden colour.
The origins of saffron are so ancient that it is hard to say where it all began, but pigments dating back 50,000 years have been discovered in Iran, thought to be the native home of the spice. Cultivation of the flower, can be traced back to Greece and the island of Crete in particular.
Today most of the world’s saffron still comes from Iran with Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Italy and Afghanistan also large producers. Controversially, Iranian saffron is often imported to Spain where it is packaged and distributed under a local name. This is because the demand for saffron in Spain exceeds the production and as a result, genuine Spanish saffron is more expensive.
Top quality Spanish saffron has a distinctive rusty colour and a crisp, almost brittle feel from the drying process. To ensure you are getting the best quality Spanish saffron it is advisable to buy from producers bearing the Azafrán de la Mancha D.O (Denominación de Origen) label, which was set up in 2001 to guarantee quality.
The spice arrived in Spain as az-zafaran during Moorish invasion of 711 and has remained an important part of Spanish cuisine ever since. In La Mancha, the flowers are harvested in October when the crocus petals open to form a sea of purple across the landscape. The flowers are picked on the same day to ensure freshness and quality. The stigmas are removed by hand then dried and packed. It takes over 70,000 flowers to produce just 1 lb (450 g) of saffron.
Residents of the UK are often surprised to learn that England once produced some of the finest saffron in the world. The town of Saffron Waldon in Essex was named after the spice that was grown there. This practice continued until around 200 years ago when cheaper foreign imports saw production reduced drastically. Today, saffron is once again being cultivated in the UK thanks to a small, intrepid band of growers.