Friday, May 17, 2013

Saffron: Threads of Gold

A Spanish Flavor 

Having lived in Spain for over a decade, one locally-produced spice that I've become accustomed to seeing on the store shelves is "azafrán", which is derived from the Persian word  za'ferânSpaniards aren't known for enjoying strongly spiced foods, but the mild metallic honey-like flavor of saffron is a mandatory ingredient in a true paella and other traditional dishes. The luminous golden color and aroma it exudes makes them especially tempting.

Why is it so expensive?   

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. 
Fortunately, only a small amount needs to be added to a dish to appreciate its color and aroma. Derived from the dried stigmas of the purple saffron crocus flower (Crocus sativus), it takes between 50,000 and 100,000 flowers to make just one pound of saffron (about 70,000 and 200,000 strands), depending on the variety. 
Moreover, the flowers have to be individually hand-picked in the autumn when fully open. In Kashmir, during the harvest, thousands of growers must work continuously in relays over the span of one or two weeks throughout both day and night.

The traditional method of drying involves spreading the fresh stigmas over screens of fine mesh, which are then baked over hot coals or wood or in oven-heated rooms for 10–12 hours. Afterwards, the dried spice is preferably sealed in airtight glass containers. Bulk quantities of lower-grade saffron can reach upwards of US$500 per pound; retail costs for small amounts may exceed ten times that rate. In Western countries the average retail price is US$1,000 per pound.

How to spot a fake?

Due to the handsome prices it demands, there are many adulterated and fake products being dyed to imitate saffron. To determine whether or not what you have bought is fake or adulterated immerse a bit of the product in warm water or milk. If the liquid colors immediately, then the saffron is fake. Genuine saffron must soak in either warm water or milk for at least 10 to 15 minutes before its deep red-gold color and the saffron aroma begin to develop.

Saffron's Uses

Records detailing the use of saffron go back to ancient Egypt and Rome where it was used as a dye, in perfumes, as a drug, as well as for culinary purposes. It reached China in the 7th century and spread through Europe in the Middle Ages. Saffron is still used to dye Buddhist monks' robes today (see photo).

Nowadays, most saffron is imported from Iran and Spain, which are recognized as producing the best quality, but it can also be found in Egypt, Kashmir, Morocco and Turkey. Varieties from Spain, including  "Spanish Superior" and "Creme", are generally mellower in color, flavor and aroma. The Italian varieties are slightly more potent than Spanish, and the most intense varieties   are Iranian.                                                                                              
Documentation has been found of saffron's use over the span of 4,000 years in the treatment of some 90 illnesses. Saffron-based pigments have also been discovered in 50,000 year-old depictions of prehistoric places in northwest Iran. The Sumerians used wild-growing saffron in their remedies and magical potions. Saffron threads would be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. During his Asian campaigns, Alexander the Great used Persian saffron in his infusions, rice, and baths as a curative for battle wounds. 
As far as its culinary uses, saffron is widely used in Indian, Persian, European, Arab and Turkish cuisines - ranging from the Milanese risotto of Italy to the bouillabaisse of France to the biryani in South Asia.

Some Healing Benefits
Saffron has a long medicinal history as part of traditional healing; several modern research studies have hinted that the spice has possible anti-carcinogenic (cancer-suppressing) and antioxidant-like properties.  It can also be used as an appetite suppressant for weight loss, for treatment of depression and to decrease PMS symptoms.
It has also been reported to stop blindness and treat eye disease.
Want to experiment with this versatile uplifting spice? 
Check out these recipes:

Healthy saffron recipes

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