Recently I visited Spain for a weeklong trip with my family and purchased several grams of saffron at the local farmers market because I use it so often and the price is much lower than in the U.S. I purchased a few grams of Kashmiri saffron last year while in India and thought it was heavenly. Also, I remembered that I had seen Iranian saffron in Madrid just a few years earlier so I searched through all of the duty free shops and gift stores during my travels. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any. I searched for quite a while to find Iranian saffron after I returned and finally was able to get it sent to me. Since saffron is a critical ingredient for heavenly Indian cooking, I thought I would compare the flavor, color and aromas of the largest saffron producing countries to see which is best.
Saffron, harvested from the flower of the saffron crocus, is considered to be very precious since per ounce on the planet. To give you perspective on how rare this is, each crocus plant may have 4 flowers and each flower has 3 stigmas. That is 12 tiny threads per plant! To give some perspective, nearly 500 stigmas or threads make one gram and “it takes a football field-size plot of saffron crocuses to produce just 1 pound of saffron threads.” 1 A lot of work goes into harvesting each one by hand and drying these threads just so we can enjoy the flavor and bright color they provide.
Discovered around 3,000 years ago, this spice originated from central Asia or Crete and was first grown in Greece. This prized spice then traveled to Syria, Iraq, Iran, China and Kashmir. The history is very interwoven and complex so I will not make a guess as to which group of people used it before anyone else. During this time saffron was used for medicinal and magical purposes as well as for its color as a dye, aroma and flavor. Now saffron is grown around the world but most of it is grown near the Mediterranean, in a band around the equator.
Top Saffron Producers
Top saffron producing regions are Kashmir in northern India, Spain and Iran. In the table below I compare the physical attributes of their saffron:
||Even though it is difficult to acquire, it is reported to e the best saffron in the world.
||very dark red
||subtle but pervasive, rich aroma
||The most readily available saffron in the U.S.
||Grows over 90% of the world’s supply.
||intense, full body
Other saffron producers:
Other Middle East countries Greece
Before buying any saffron, look closely at the threads. When picked from the crocus the saffron stigma is located on top of a style which is connected to the flower. The saffron with the best color and flavor contains just the red stigma; this is also extremely expensive. To prepare this crème de la crème saffron, the grower must cut every stigma from every style thus reducing the number of saffron threads per gram. The packaging will refer to this as saffron coupé (cut). To make it more affordable, the styles are not cut from the stigmas thus one can see some yellow threads in the saffron. The saffron is then graded based on the length of the style. The longer it is, the less expensive it is because it has a higher concentration of styles making it less red in color. The three attributes that contribute to saffron quality are color, taste and aroma.
Saffron threads from Kashmir, Spain and Iran (left to right).
Ground saffron is often sold in grocery stores. I would not recommend using it since the flavor is lost very quickly after it is ground. When you need to grind it, simply rub a few threads between your thumb and fingers to break them into tiny pieces. In addition, it may be “supplemented” with a bit of turmeric or paprika to reduce the price.
One tip on using saffron: Remember that a small bit gives a lot of flavor to your dish.
1 Elizabeth Gunnison, Most Expensive Spice:
Saffron, http://www.gourmet.com/food/gourmetlive/2012/041112/expensive/most-expensive-spice-saffron (April 11, 2012).
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