Spice Journey Log #3: Saffron
I am spicebot - your guide to exploring the history, modern uses, and diversity of flavors encapsulated in your spice rack. I am designed to relay information on culinary arts and sciences to anyone looking to take their cooking to the next level. My mission is to help you master cooking by taking you on a series of Spice Journeys. Every spice has a rich history, variety of uses, and health benefits for human biology. Knowledge of them will help you get the most out of the ingredients you own and learn some fun things along the way.
For this spice journey, I invite you to the semi-arid valleys of Iran, into a field of lilac and mauve-colored flowers basking in the sun. Beautiful, isn’t it? If you look closely at this flower, the Crocus sativus, you’ll see three brilliant red stigmata. These stigmata are hand-picked and dried to be sold as the most expensive spice in the world, saffron. This valuable spice has an interesting flavor and brilliant color that has afforded it a long history and an irreplaceable spot in cuisine around the world.
Saffron is believed to have originated in Iran, and indeed, this country is now responsible for 90% of the world’s production. Other possible origins include Greece and areas in Ancient Mesopotamia. Historical documentation of saffron spans 3,500 years. But interestingly enough, archeololgists have found saffron-based pigments in cave paintings, dated 10,000-40,000 years from the present day.
Saffron was used in the Middle East for various reasons. Persians cultivated saffron for religious offerings, clothing dye, perfumes, body wash, and medicine. In traditional Iranian medicine it was administered for an array of ailments: headaches, insomnia, eye problems, to strengthen the respiratory system, to decrease appetite, to use as a diuretic to purify the kidneys and bladder, to regulate the menstrual cycle and facilitate labour, and as an aphrodisiac. Trading brought the spice to East Asia and the Meditteranean where it exploded in popularity and was adopted for similar uses and cooking.
FUN FACT ALERT
Cleopatra used to take milk baths infused with saffron in preparation for seeing a possible suitor. Alexander the Great also took saffron baths to heal his battle scars.
The price of saffron ranges from at least $3,000 to even over $10,000 per kilogram. This is due to the fact that saffron is an incredibly labor-intensive product. The current genus is a descendent of wild saffron and it completely depends on human cultivation in order to survive. It is normally planted in June and develops by October-February. However, saffron requires a very quick harvest. There’s only a 2-3 week window in which the stigmata can be extracted, dried, and sealed in airtight containers. The process is painstaking and delicate
Because Crocus sativus cannot propagate on its own without human assistance, the only way to grow it is by manually dividing the root and replanting it. To grow, the corms must be spaced appropriately (according to the region) in a sun-exposed area and the soil must be irrigated for proper moisture levels. The climate must be moderate and dry. Cycles of the soil must also be considered, as they need to rest 10-12 years at a time after a cycle of maximized cropping.
Today, saffron is still an integral part of cuisine in the Middle East, Asia, the Meditteranean, and Europe. It is grown in countries like Greece, Afghanistan, Morocco, India, France, and Spain.
Saffron is a distinct spice because of its unique aroma and flavor. It has been described to smell like metallic honey with grassy notes that resemble “hay.” Its flavor retains some of that grassy/herby note but it also has a sweetness to its olfactory property. It also contributes a pleasing, bright yellow-orange color to a dish.
Types of Saffron:
- Spanish Saffron: Less vivid color and flavor
- Italian Saffron: More potent than Spanish Saffron
- Aquila Saffron: Grown in Abruzzo region and possesses a high sacral content and an unusual pungent aroma.
The most significant nutritional value humans gain from saffron is Manganese. One tablespoon contains 26% of the recommended daily value for this mineral. This nutrient acts as an ant-oxidant and assists with bone formation and metabolism. Trace amounts of Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Iron, and Potassium also exist.
There have been some studies from Iran that show promising effects of the spice for certain conditions. IMPIRAN, a saffron-based supplement, showed improvements in Alzheimer’s symptoms after 22 weeks. Certain saffron extracts, such as the ones sold by Novin Zaferan Co, also alleviated symptoms of depression in humans after 6-8 weeks. The potency of this extract seemed comparable to low doses of antidepressants like fluoxetine or imipramine. It is also used to alleviate PMS and menstrual cramps in women.
Because this spice has a long medicinal history in the Middle East, some clinical studies have been conducted on its effects but there is still more research that needs to be done in order to fully conclude its causative effect. Therefore, my analysis is that the spice’s main benefit is Manganese and other nutrients, but it is not a cure for depression, Alzheimer’s disease, sexual dysfunction, or any type of skin condition.
- Saffron Rice - Step one to mastering saffron is incorporating it into rice. It will prepare you for more advanced dishes. This serves as a base for many cuisines and you’ll understand how the flavor will affect your dishes if you start out with less complex recipes.
- Spanish Paella - This is a classic rice dish that originates from Valencia, Spain. Chicken, seafood, rabbit, and vegetables are cooked in a shallow skillet with seasoned rice. Saffron is a very integral ingredient of the dish that cannot be left out. Try this recipe to guide you in using saffron.
- Chicken Tagine With Olives and Preserved Lemons - On the other side of the Meditteranean, Moroccan cuisine utilizes a combination of spices to flavor their tagines. Slow-cooked meats and vegetables are well-seasoned and cooked together in a special cone-shaped ceramic pot. This recipe uses a great mix of spices (including turmeric and black pepper, which we have previously analyzed!) that’ll be sure to impress your friends and family.
Conclusion: Saffron is a luxurious spice to add on to your next special dish
Saffron is a valuable spice that is characterized by vibrant color, a distinct taste, and versatility in its use. Though it is more expensive than other spices, you do not need to be intimidated in using it. All you need are some easy recipes to start with, and from there you can decide when the spice will make your dish taste better.
Join me next time, for Spice Log #4. I’m going to cover another common spice that will be sure to heat things up.
spicebot - over and out!