Saffron is arguably the most fascinating spice in world cuisine, and certainly the most expensive. The history of its cultivation spans over three millennia, and even before people attempted to grow and selectively breed the plant it was treasured when found wild. It has been traded with as much zeal and desire as precious metals and gems, and has inspired artworks dedicated to it. So what is the source of saffron?
Yes, that’s right, a flower most people probably associate with a common garden decoration. But not every species of crocus produces saffron; only the saffron crocus Crocus sativus yields this precious commodity. The flower has stigmas, which are a bright crimson colour, and serve as pollen collecting stalks. One flower will typically have three stigmas, which are collected and dried, and this is saffron. You can imagine how many flowers are needed for any significant quantity of saffron, given that each will only yield three small sticks. Saffron is therefore a tremendously rare spice, which requires immense care to cultivate and great delicacy and patience to harvest.
There is a great deal of variation within saffron. There is an international grading scheme, based on laboratory testing of samples, which ranks the quality of the spice from different farms. However, many saffron purists disregard this methodology, and believe only in sampling the saffron flavours themselves. The taste varies by region and also by individual producers, and many pride themselves on their very own, special saffron subtleties. It really is a lot like the world of fine wine – to a layman there may appear to be little variation, and the mind boggles at the prices some are willing to pay for it. But to a connoisseur, saffron is a precious and multi-faceted experience.
But saffron has more to offer than a striking flavor and unique colour. It has also been used medicinally, most commonly as an antidepressant. Ancient Persians used saffron baths to cure bouts of sadness and melancholy, or scattered the spice across the sufferer’s bed. It has also been used as an aphrodisiac, and Queen Cleopatra herself swore by it to spice up her sex life.
But for most, the prices of saffron will be prohibitive of too much experimentation. At wholesale costs, you can expect to pay $1,100–$11,000 per kilo of saffron. Of course, a kilo is a huge amount of spice. Let’s say you wanted to buy 100g of it, well you would still have to fork out about $110 at the absolute minimum. But of course you wouldn’t be buying at a wholesale price, and you wouldn’t necessarily find the absolute cheapest saffron, so it would actually be much more than that. It takes a very dedicated foodie indeed to make that kind of investment.
Now, you might be thinking “But I’ve had saffron!” if you’ve had paella, for example, which is a dish that typically calls for the use of the spice. The sad truth of the matter is that you are very, very unlikely to have had the real thing unless you had your paella in an expensive restaurant, for a high price. Most dishes which traditionally use saffron will be made with substitutes, to keep the costs down.
Some saffron substitutes include:
Turmeric. Often called ‘Indian Saffron’, thanks to its popularity in India and its colour resemblance to saffron. Turmeric is a wonderful spice, and will give a rich flavor to your foods, but it does not truly resemble saffron much.
Safflower. Or ‘Mexican Saffron’, only really gives the colour of saffron, not the flavor.
Calendula. Also known as ‘Pot Marigold’ or ‘Poor man’s Saffron’, was used by the Ancient Greeks as a replacement for the pricey spice. It has the colour, and something of the spicy flavor.
None of these, however, compares to the real thing. And that is ultimately what makes saffron so alluring and valuable.
While the global economy falters, it is interesting to note that the price of both gold and
saffron has remained stable. As far as investments go, these commodities share the preciousness and desirability to guarantee their value across centuries.