Saffron, considered one of the world's most expensive spices ( $1000-$1500 per pound) comes from the crocus sativa, a wild crocus which grows predominantly in mild Mediterranean climates. You might ask yourself, What makes saffron so expensive? Well, the expense is the result of its labor intensive harvesting process, low yield, and a slow growing time. It takes approximately three years for this particular crocus plant to produce flowers; each plant produces up to 4 flowers. Each flower in turn has only three stigma which need to be picked by hand. It takes about 70,000-80,000 stigma to make one pound of saffron.
The word saffron is of Arabic origin Za'fran, meaning yellow. Interestingly enough, the Spanish word for saffron is azafran, almost identical to its Arabic counterpart. The reddish threads (stigma) of the crocus turn a deep yellow when they come in contact with water.
Saffron features prominently in Persian and Mediterranean cuisine. You can't possibly make a paella (the typical Spanish seafood and rice dish) or an Adas Polow ( a Persian dish consisting of rice, lentils and raisins) without saffron. Apart from its use in savory dishes, saffron is also used in cakes and other sweets.
Saffron has often played a prominent role in world history. In ancient Egypt for example, it was used as an additive to perfume, as a dye and also as medicine. It also had a religious use: saffron cakes were used as offerings the gods. In ancient Mesopotamia saffron was used as both an aromatic and as an aphrodisiac. And, in the profitable spice trade of the Middle Ages it was considered among the most desired spices along with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg.
According to Greek mythology, the god Hermes accidentally struck his friend Croco and lethally wounded him. In the spot where blood dripped, Hermes touched his sword and flowers began to grow. Another reference to saffron in Greek mythology has Zeus sleeping on a bed of saffron.
Saffron also appears in the social rituals in antiquity. Saffron was allegedly scattered at the feet of Roman emperors; not surprising given the excesses that characterized the Roman Empire. Along the same vein, saffron is supposed to have been sprinkled on the couches of fashionable homes so guests could breathe in the sweet aroma. I just hope the couches were not white!!! It was also thrown on the beds of newlyweds in Ancient Rome (Remember saffron's aphrodisiac use in ancient Mesopotamia?.)
Saffron was also part of religious rituals; it was once used to dye the robes of Buddhist monks, a practice which has now been replaced by the use of turmeric, an ingredient that achieves the same result (as far as color is concerned) without the cost. And in Tyre (the ancient Phoenician city on the Mediterranean) it was once used to dye the veils of brides.
When using saffron, don't skimp. Yes, it is expensive, but a little goes a long way. Above all don't use imitation, it is definitely not the same. I usually purchase mine from Penzeys ( a great spice store.)
Because of saffron's expense, in order to ensure that you are purchasing a quality product, keep these few tips in mind:
1. Color- The color should be deep red
2. Smell- Saffron has a distinctive sweet fragrance. Absence of fragrance indicates that the saffron is probably old and will not impart much flavor on your food.
3. Texture- Saffron should feel brittle to the touch, after all it has been dried. This applies to when you are purchasing loose saffron. If you are buying loose saffron, make sure you only purchase it from a reputable spice merchant.
4. Never buy powdered saffron; it could have been "adulterated" with other ingredients such as turmeric (to preserve the yellow color.)
And finally, to ensure freshness, store your saffron in a cool dry place.