When going all-in with your kitchen and really getting stuck into cooking your dishes from the ground up, herbs and spices are an essential tool that you need at your disposal. Parsley, Chives, Cayenne or Turmeric, they’ll all come in handy at some point, so it’s wise to keep your spice cabinet as healthily stocked as possible. There is, however, one spice that you’re going to need to think about before committing to buying; Saffron.
Saffron is a spice derived from the Crocus Sativus flower; specifically, from the vivid styles and stigmas that grow out of the flower itself. These styles and stigmas called Threads are harvested from the flowers, before being dried to preserve flavour. Said flavour is a very sweet, vaguely hay-like one with subtle notes comparable to that of honey. In addition to it’s culinary use, the threads of the Crocus Sativus are known for imparting a strong, vibrant yellow hue when heated, and was often used for dyeing purposes throughout history as a result, all the way up to the present day.
The flower is native to Greece (where it was first cultivated) and Southwest Asia, although it slowly propagated throughout Eurasia after it’s initial cultivation and can now be found in various Northern African territories and Oceania. Currently, Iran is the country that produces the most Saffron, with around 93% of Saffron found throughout the globe being produced and exported from there.
Saffron Ain’t Cheap
Probably sounds very enticing- and it is- but what makes Saffron especially notable is the culture and politics surrounding it, almost all of which is the way it is because of where the spice sits economically; it is, currently, the single most expensive spice by weight. It is, plain and simply, a luxury item rather then a basic necessity.
Exactly how expensive is it? As of this writing, listings for various grades and weights of Saffron on Amazon UK range from as low as £3.99 for a single gramme, and upwards of £29.99 for 10 grammes. Across the pond, it’s roughly estimated that a pound of Saffron can cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000, or between £353 to £3,530 going by the current exchange rate as of this writing.
Yeah. We know.
There are a number of reasons this, but perhaps the most pervasive is the sheer difficulty of actually harvesting the stuff. A Crocus Sativus flower will grow up to four flowers with three Stigmas, so that’s no more then 12 stigma’s per Crocus Sativus. To glean a kilogram of Saffron requires upwards of 170,000 flowers, and it takes roughly forty hours worth of labour to harvest 150,00 of said flowers. Put simply, actually getting the stuff requires a lot of work and time. Then, there’s the history of the spice; it has numerous religious ties in various countries- most notably in India- and throughout it’s existence as a cultivated spice has been used for various medicinal reasons. We are greatly over simplifying and generalising the importance of Saffron culturally for the sake of brevity, but needless to say, it’s a highly revered thing in several cultures.
How Good Is Good?
Further complicating measures is the matter of Grade, which we briefly alluded to in the initial paragraph. Again, we’re simplifying the matter and glossing over the intricacies, but the basic gist of it is that Saffron comes in various levels of quality, with each country having it’s own tiers of quality and names for the various grades. Obviously, the higher the grade, the stronger the flavour and the larger the price tag. Rules regarding the selling and trading of the grades- particularly in relation to Adulteration (whether or not the Saffron has been cut with another spice) or lower grades being labelled as higher grades- are incredibly tight, and were even tighter in the past. During the Medieval period, adulteration of Saffron in any way was punishable by execution.
We don’t want to discourage you from buying Saffron, of course; it can be a highly beneficial spice to have laying around, and when making dishes such as Paella or Biryani it’s an essential addition. But it is good to know that it likely won’t be the sort of thing you will use very often, and can be a costly endeavour.