Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The world's most expensive spice

Sometimes I think I should have a whole section on this blog called "Who decided this was edible?".  Although, that needs to be made more catchy somehow.....

Today at work, someone asked me about saffron threads.  I had heard of saffron, but never saffron threads.  Apparently, they are the individually hand harvest stamens of the crocus flower and is the most expensive spice in the world. 

The Deluxe Food Lovers Companion says this:

"It's no wonder that saffron—the yellow-orange stigmas from a small purple crocus (Crocus sativus)—is the world's most expensive spice. Each flower provides only three stigmas, which must be carefully hand-picked and then dried—an extremely labor-intensive process. It takes over 14,000 of these tiny stigmas for each ounce of saffron ... " (emphasis mine)

Interestingly, the Cambridge World History of Food posits the number of flowers as this:

"It has been estimated that, at three stigmas per plant, upwards of 250,000 of these crocus flowers are required to yield a pound of saffron. "

So I wonder, who figured out that the inside of a flower is so tasty?  Considering how long it takes to dry and how MANY flowers they have to harvest to make it usable, it just seems odd than anyone figured that out.   The Cambridge World History of Food has a whole section titled "Determining what our ancestors ate" which addresses how we know what people ate thousands of years ago; I think you could write an interesting book, or at least an essay about the stories of food 'discovery'. 

The history of Saffron:

Again, the Cambridge World History of Food:

"Native to the eastern Mediterranean, saffron was used in cooking for thousands of years before the Romans built their empire. Indeed, some credit Phoenician traders with introducing it in Spain - the country that today is the leading producer for the commercial market.

The word saffron comes from the Arabic word for “yellow,” and its distinctive color and taste grace Spanish, Cuban, French, and Indian cuisines, especially their rice dishes. It is a vital ingredient in an authentic bouillabaisse or paella as well as the saffron bread of a traditional Swedish feast. Saffron also goes well with poultry, in tomato-based sauces and stews, and in liqueurs such as Chartreuse. The spice is marketed as dried threads and in ground form. Unfortunately, much adulteration of ground saffron occurs, including its near-total replacement with turmeric - a crime that in fifteenth-century Germany drew a penalty of execution by burning or burying alive." (Cambridge World History of Food)

That last bit is one of my favorite items of interest.  Saffron was so special that you could be killed for replacing it with something else.

And a bit more info, from the Deluxe Food Lovers Companion:

"Thousands of years ago saffron was used not only to flavor food and beverages but to make medicines and to dye cloth and body oils a deep yellow. Today this pungent, aromatic spice is primarily used to flavor and tint food. Fortunately (because it's so pricey), a little saffron goes a long way. It's integral to hundreds of dishes like bouillabaisse, risotto Milanese and paella, and flavors many European baked goods."

Incidentally, from what I have found in other sources, the flavor of saffron is nearly impossible to replicate although some say safflower has some, minimal similarity.  The color of saffron can be replicated by several other additives including turmeric, safflower, annato seeds and marigold flowers


SAFFRON. (2000). In Cambridge World History of Food.  Accessed through University of North Texas Online Resources.Password required.

This resource is also available in hard copy and some preview elements are available on the official website.

SAFFRON :SPICE GLOSSARY. (2009). In The Deluxe Food Lover's Companion.   Accessed through University of North Texas Online Resources. Password required.

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