Saffron, a spice gotten from dried flowers of the saffron crocus, also called “Crocus Sativus” is unarguably one of the world’s most expensive substances. With a distinct, often hard to describe flavor and taste; saffron has been used as a cooking spice, dye, fragrance, and medicine; for centuries.
The Origin of Saffron
The origin of saffron cultivation dates over the last four millennia. It cuts across different cultures and continents. However, records have shown that saffron was first cultivated in Greece. The most acknowledged Greek legend, involving saffron, was that narrating the tragedy of Crocus and Smilax. The story describes a man, Crocus, who decided to pursue the beautiful Smilax. Initially taken by his advances, Smilax gave in, but soon grew tired of him. Not one to give up, Crocus pursues her relentlessly, causing Smilax to resort to bewitching him. This transformed Crocus into a saffron crocus flower. The story details that the orange stigma in flower shows Crocus’ unending love for Smilax.
It is believed that the beautiful women of Greek used saffron as a beauty powder for their skin. Not only that, even the Romans took several mixtures of saffron during their orgies so they could bestow themselves with more energy, to the goddess of love, Venus. The ancient Romans and Greeks also used saffron as a deodorizer. It was used to make the street, and public places smell better especially upon Emperor Nero’s entrance to Rome. Wealthy Roman women also had various beauty treatments involving saffron.
Records have also traced the use of saffron to ancient Egypt, where it was used as a drug for illness, seasoning for meals and dye for clothes. Cleopatra is said to have used several drops of Saffron in her warm baths because of Saffron’s cosmetic properties. It is believed that she used it before her encounters with men to heighten the pleasure of lovemaking. Saffron was also used by Egyptian physicians as a treatment for several kinds of gastrointestinal ailments and urinary tract conditions.
Ancient Persia and Saffron
The existence of saffron in Persia has spanned several millennia. Saffron was used as ritual offerings to idols and gods by ancient Persian worshippers. Saffron was also considered as perfume, a coloring agent, even a drug. Persian saffron threads for culinary purposes were widely speculated to be Aphrodisiacs. In ancient Persia, saffron was used as a beauty treatment as it was used for warm baths after the day’s activities. Alexander the Great himself, made use of saffron-laced warm water for his baths. He believed it would heal his wounds and it worked as he even recommended it to lower-ranking subordinates.
Saffron cultivation also extended from Persia to present-day Turkey, especially around the northern town of Safranbolu, a town which still holds annual saffron harvest festival. It is also speculated that saffron spread to South and East Asia from Persia. Historians opine that, after ancient Persia conquered Kashmiri, Persian saffron crocus corms were transplanted to Kashmiri. Others believe that saffron first reached India from Persia, as a result of Persian leaders’ efforts to fill up their newly built gardens. They transplanted the desired cultivars across the Persian Empire.
How is Saffron Cultivated?
The cultivation of saffron is traditional art. In India over 6,000 hectares of land are devoted to the cultivation of saffron, with the annual production totaling about fifteen thousand kilograms. The states of Kashmiri, Jammul, Himachal, and Pradesh, are the biggest saffron growing states in the whole of India. Sir, Water Lawrence in his book, ‘’the valley of Kashmiri’’, gave a well-explained study of the cultivations of saffron and its uses. To successfully grow saffron, these factors should be taken into consideration:
What kind of soil is suitable for planting saffron? To successfully cultivate saffron, particular attention has to be given to the kind of soil it is to be grown on. Saffron thrives on acidic to neutral loamy, gravely and sandy soil; with an optimum soil PH of 6 to 8.
What kind of climate does Saffron thrive on? Another important fact is the climate of the area. Saffron is best grown in warm sub-tropical climate.
How do I propagate saffron? Propagation in saffron farming is done through compressed underground stems also known as corms.
How can I plant saffron? Suitable land should be made weed free and enriched with organic matters. The soil should be brought to a tilth stage; through plowing before planting the corms.
When is the best time to cultivate saffron? Saffron is best cultivated between June and September. Winter is usually the vegetative growth season, and saffron leaves get dried out in May.
Where can I plant saffron? Saffron corms can be planted indoors or outdoors; with a depth of 12 to 15cm, and 10 to the 12cm spacing between them. Irrigation is not required except in the instance of prolonged drought. One saffron corm could develop up to 5 corms after 3 years of planting.
How can weed be controlled in saffron farming? Mulching aids weed control in saffron farming. In saffron farming, plants are mulched with sawdust to reduce weed growth. Farmers also used weedicide.
Can I use of fertilizers in saffron farming? It is advised to use more of farm manure. Well decomposed farm manure of up to 30 tonnes should be applied in the field, even before planting saffron corms to prepare the land.
What kind of pest and diseases affect saffron farming? Some problems most saffron farmers face are diseases which affect saffron trees. Some of these diseases include; corm rot, bacteria rot, charcoal rot, mosaic and dry rot. Diseases like fusarium, Rhizoctonia and violet root rot affect saffron farms. This is why farmers should make provisions for horticultural experts. Rabbits are the major pest of saffron farms. Proper fences should be put in place to protect the farm.
When can I harvest saffron? Harvesting in saffron farming should be done when the flowers are in their full bloom stage. This is usually between October and November. It is advised to pick the flowers before 10 am each morning. After this, the farmer can proceed with the extraction of the red pistils from the flowers.
How is drying done in saffron farming? The extracted pistils should be put on a sieve in a well-ventilated place, for 10 – 20 minutes. After it is dried, saffron should be placed in an airtight container for at least one month before the consumption of the spice.
Finally, to enhance saffron production growers must; 1. Have good quality and high yield seeds 2. Have enough space for cultivation 3. Get adequate training on how to properly package the produce 4. Have an expert to consult in the event of any complication
Types of Saffron
Saffron is often categorized based on the country of origin. The major producers of saffron include; Iran, Spain, Greece, and Afghanistan. There are several kinds of saffron:
1. Mongra saffron: Predominantly cultivated on the Kashmiri soil. This kind of saffron is found only in India and is characterized by dark crimson red threads.
2. Aquilla saffron: This kind of saffron is cultivated around the Sardima area and Navellin valley of Italy. The color is a bit lighter than the Kashmiri saffron; it is also less expensive.
3. Spanish superior and crème saffron: This kind of saffron is commonly used in the United States of America. The Spanish superior and crème saffron contains more yellow parts and is not as active or as expensive as other varieties of saffron.
4. Persian Saffron: Persia has the reputation of being one of the earliest places where saffron cultivation was recorded. Iran is said to possess high-quality saffron due to factors like suitable climate, soil, topography and harvesting methods. Factors which are necessary for the production of high-quality saffron spice. Persian saffron is unarguably the most sought after saffron in recent times. Currently, Iran is responsible for over 95% of the total supply of saffron around the globe.
What are the kinds of Persian Saffron?
There are five major kinds of Persian saffron. They include:
All-red saffron (Sargol): This kind of saffron has good coloring power. It contains no yellow or orange threads. Sargol’s threads are short with deep red color. The all-red saffron is gotten from the Bunch saffron.
Super Negin: this kind of Persian saffron posses pleasing features. The super negin has longer threads than the sargol, and it contains no crumbs.
Negin: The Negin has a very high coloring power. It is longer than the super Negin and sargol. The Negin contains some portions of orange and yellow threads.
Poshal: This kind of Persin saffron is the most sold saffron in stores. This is because of the price. The Poshal contains red stigma with about 1mm to 3mm of yellow style.
Bunch saffron (Dastehi): this kind of saffron has both style and red-colored stigma. The red part of the stigma is usually about 75%, and the style is about 25%.
Why Pick Persian Saffron Over Other Types of Saffron?
Persian saffron has, over the years, developed the reputation of being the best saffron in the world; because Iran has all the conditions needed for saffron to thrive. Other reasons for this assertion include:
Persian saffron has been produced non-sop for centuries; therefore Persian farmers have a vast knowledge of saffron and the farming process. They know what to do in the event of any mishap. Hence, Persian saffron has consistently dominated up to 95% of the global market.
Persian saffron is less expensive when gotten directly from the source. Buying Persian saffron enables you to get high-quality product from the place where the majority of saffron is grown.
Unlike other types of saffron which display dull brick red coloring due to age, Persian saffron threads all have crimson red with bright orange tips.
Persian saffron has a strong and fresh aroma when compared to the musty aroma of other types of saffron. Different types of saffron most times do not separate yellow and white parts from the red stigma. They are left to add weight to the saffron. This is not the case with Persian saffron, as the white parts are thoroughly separated from the red plant parts.
Other kinds of saffron have moister trapped inside to add weight. The stigmas are sometimes, not current season threads, but Persian saffron offers current threads of the season.
What are the nutritional facts about Saffron?
It is a known fact that saffron is highly sought after because of its nutritional value and health benefits. However, one cannot help but wonder what nutritional components make saffron so useful? Saffron comprises three major components;
The Crocin- This is responsible for the yellow pigmentation
The Picrocrocin- This is responsible for the saffron’s bitter-sweet flavor
The Safranal- This gives the spice it’s earthy fragrance
These components contain antioxidant properties which are being studied for use on drugs that can fight depression and cancer.
According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, 100g in the total weight of saffron contains nutrients’ shown in the table below:
Saffron has been reported to have many health benefits. Some of these benefits include:
Blood Pressure: Saffron is known to contain an agent referred to as Crocetin which helps reduce blood pressure.
Menstrual Relief: Saffron offers relief from menstrual related discomfort. Saffron can also help regulate one’s menstruation. Till date, an Iranian herbal drug, containing saffron is said to relieve painful menstruation.
Fights Cancer: The a-crocin, a carotenoid compound, which is responsible for saffron’s orange-yellow hue is known to have anti-cancer properties. The Safranal also, which gives the spice its fragrance is known to have antioxidants which fight cancer cells.
Aids Vision: Safranal, one of the compounds in saffron spice is said to preserve photoreceptor morphology, capillary network, and visual response. Crocin contained in saffron also helps increase blood flow in the retina, thereby aiding retina function.
Depression: Saffron is used to treating mild to moderate depression. Compounds such as safranal, crocin, and kaempferol, present in saffron give it antioxidant effects. Sufficient intake of saffron tea gives one a feeling of joy and happiness.
Improves Memory: Regular consumption of saffron helps improve memory power. Saffron also lessens specific neurotoxic effects as a result of its antioxidant reinforcement.
Cures Insomnia: Studies also show that saffron can cure insomnia. This is as a result of the fact that, saffron contains magnesium, which calms the nerve and enhances sleep. Saffron has sedative effects on the body.
Prevents Diabetes: Saffron helps increase the level of insulin in the body; this, in turn, prevents diabetes.
Prevents Alzheimer’s disease: Saffron keeps the brain from losing memory, thereby reducing the chances of old people developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Treats Ulcer: Saffron preclude the production of gastric acid which damages the gastric lining wall. Saffron also protects the body against gastric mucosal damage; induced by necrotizing agents.
Cures Asthma: Saffron contains crocin and kaempferol which reduce asthma attacks to a great extent. Saffron also helps relieve a cough.
Acts as an Aphrodisiac: From ancient times, saffron has been speculated to act as an aphrodisiac. In several studies, crocin in saffron helped increase erection frequencies in male rats; it also had the same effect on humans. Saffron aids in the treatment of male fertility.
Treats Inflammations: The antioxidants present in saffron help treat inflammations especially in patients with arthritis. Saffron is also believed to reduce skin tumors.
Good for insect bites: Application of saffron extracts on insect bites and sores are considered to bring fast relief.
Is Saffron good for your skin?
From the origin of Saffron, the spice has been used by several notable figures in history as a beauty treatment. Cleopatra and Alexandra the Great had warm baths in saffron laced warm water because they knew its cosmetic benefits. Some of the cosmetic benefits of saffron include:
• Saffron can be used to lighten the skin: It is believed that taking a glass of milk with a few strands of saffron soaked for a while could lighten the skin. This is why expectant mothers are always given milk and saffron to give the foetus in the womb a glowing complexion. You can also achieve a glowing skin by using saffron lotion. A homemade saffron lotion for skin lightening can be made by following these steps;
Soak sunflower seeds and saffron in a glass of milk
Blend the mixture after 24hours
Apply the paste on your face
Leave it on for 10 minutes then rinse off with warm water
This can be done once a week
• Saffron can be used to treat Acne: The antioxidants present in saffron helps protect the skin from harmful free radicals; giving the skin a radiant glow. To use saffron for acne treatment;
Crush 6 basil leaves with 12 strands of saffron to form a paste
Apply the paste on your face
Leave for 15minutes and rinse off with warm water
Basil leaves contain antibacterial effects which work well against acne when combined with saffron
• Saffron softens your skin and improves skin texture: Saffron gets rid of dead cells from the skin. To soften your skin;
Add a few strands of saffron into a hot bathtub
Soak yourself for 30minutes
• Saffron reduces Suntan: Too much suntan on the skin makes the skin appear dull, wrinkled and patchy. To minimize the effects of suntan with saffron;
Soak 6 strands of saffron in a spoon of milk
Allow the mixture stay the night
Apply it to the tanned area the next day
Rinse off after 10 minutes
• Saffron can be used to treat dry skin: Dry skin can be treated using lemon and saffron face mask. Lemon exfoliates the skin from the inside while saffron brightens the skin on the outside. To prepare lemon and saffron face mask;
Add three drops of lemon juice to a spoon of saffron powder
Add a half teaspoon of milk
Mix into a fine paste and smear the paste all over your face
Wash off after 15minutes
• Saffron is also good for the treatment of wounds, blemishes, and scars. Alexander the Great had saffron baths to treat injuries he got after battles.
Is saffron good for your hair?
Saffron contains antioxidants which are suitable for the hair. These antioxidants help repair hair follicles and foster hair growth. Saffron is also known to be effective in treating baldness. To improve hair growth using saffron;
Soak 5 threads of saffron in milk
Add licorice to the mixture
Stir, until a fine paste is formed
Apply the paste to your scalp
Rinse off after 20 minutes
Repeat this process once a week
In what way can saffron be used?
Saffron spice does not only give your meal a distinct flavor, but it also makes your meal look more palatable. Saffron can either be used in a ground form or the thread form. To give your meal a better look, the use of threads is advised. However, if you want the spice to blend with the dish; without being too obvious, then the ground saffron is the best option for you. You can prepare your ground saffron by grinding the threads with mortar and pestle.
Apart from the ground and thread form, saffron can also be used in the liquid form. Liquid saffron can be prepared by adding 4-6 teaspoons of warm water to ground saffron and letting it dissolve for 15minutes. Vinegar or wine can also be used instead of water. The mixture can be stored in a jar for up to two weeks before use. Liquid saffron is usually added towards the end of the cooking, to give the dish a better flavor and color.
Are there any common Persian saffron recipes?
Persian saffron can be used to prepare some exquisite meals. Meals like; Persian-style saffron chicken, Persian Saffron Rice and Beef Kabob, Chicken Kabob with Persian Rice, Fried cauliflower with saffron, and Saffron mash potato.
How can I prepare the Persian-style saffron chicken?
• 2 medium chicken breasts, cut in cubes
• ¼ tablespoon of salt
• 10g butter
• 120g plum tomatoes cut in halves
• ¼ tablespoon ground saffron
• 120ml boiling water
• Lightly sprinkle and pepper over the chicken cubes
• Dissolve the butter in a skillet over low heat
• Add the chicken and heat until it’s light brown
• Add the sliced tomatoes and sauté for a few minutes until they get soft
• Add the tomato puree and sauté a little more
• Mix the saffron with a tablespoon of boiling water and set it aside
• Pour all that’s left of the boiling water over the chicken. Cook for 7minutes
• Pour the liquid saffron over the pan and allow it simmer until the chicken is cooked
Despite how easy it is to prepare the Persian-style saffron chicken, the saffron milk tea is the most used saffron dish. It is also the most natural saffron dish to prepare. You can prepare the saffron tea by steeping saffron threads in hot water. Let the threads steep for about 8minutes, remove them and enjoy your tea. Honey can be added to the tea for a better taste.
Why is Saffron so expensive?
Saffron, termed “Red Gold,” is unarguably one of the world’s most expensive spices. Saffron is expensive because of the rigorous process of its harvest. All harvesting is done manually, and a tiny part of the flower is used. For instance, to make a pound of saffron spice, about 75,000 saffron flowers are required. Also, the price of saffron is not just tied to the quality of the spice alone; the amount of saffron harvested in each saffron producing country per season affects how much it would be sold, in that country. The number of mediators the spice goes through to get to you could also inflate the price.
How can I know quality saffron?
The quality of saffron depends on its color, as it is believed that the deeper the color the higher the quality. However, the quality of saffron can also be measured by carrying out laboratory analysis of the product. Three major factors are considered during this test:
Safranal; which is the aroma strength
Crocin; which is the coloring strength
Picrocrocin; which is the flavor strength.
You can also find out if the saffron is real by sucking on a few threads of the saffron and placing them against a tissue. If the tissue’s color is changed to orange, then they are real.
Also, how fresh saffron is can be discovered by carefully studying its color. Grey colored streaks or light spots on the stigma should act as a warning sign. Saffron should be bright orange-yellow hued; with a length of about 2cm to 4cm
What the best form of saffron one can purchase is the whole threads, because ground saffron loses its flavor and color quickly.
Always go for sealed packets with expiry dates on them
Albuychase saffron from reputable shops, especially while purchasing ground saffron. This is because; ground saffron is often adulterated with turmeric
How can I store Saffron?
Saffron can last up to three years post-harvest. It will only lose its flavor as it gets older. To properly store saffron, it must be wrapped in an airtight container; away from direct light rays. Light rays tend to oxidize its pigments, thereby reducing its flavor.
What are the side effects of Saffron?
Despite having so many benefits, saffron has a few side effects;
It is not safe to use saffron in large amounts, orally, during pregnancy. It can lead to contractions and ultimately miscarriage of the uterus.
People with bipolar disorder should only use saffron under strict supervision, as it can trigger excitement and impulsive behavior
Saffron can affect how fast one’s heart beats and can reduce blood pressure way more than necessary
Finally, despite how expensive saffron is, its benefits outweigh the cost. It is one product which everyone ought to have.
Saffron is perhaps the world's most expensive spice. For centuries, the exceptional flavor, color, and therapeutic powers of the spice have made it a coveted prize across many civilizations in Eurasia, and all over the world in the modern era. Saffron is made by drying the stigma or threads of the flowers of the Crocus sativus plant, a bulbous perennial which is part of the Crocus genus and Iridaceae family, from where it got its botanical name Crocus sativus.
To understand the painstaking effort of making saffron and why it’s so precious, you need to get a clear picture of the plant it comes from. The Crocus sativus plant can have a height of up to about 15-20cm, producing lavender-colored flowers from October to November when it is in season in autumn. The flowers have a perianth which is made up of a stalk or style which connects three stigmas or threads to the plant. The style and the red-yellow colored stigmas make up saffron that we use as a spice. No wonder saffron is the most valuable spice in the world by weight, as it takes the style and stigmas of a whopping 150,000-200,000 flowers to make 1 kilogram of this wonderful condiment spice.
Saffron thrives in cool, dry climates, and requires a fertile and well-drained, well-watered soil with abundant rainfall or irrigation facilities for a good harvest. Flowers are harvested in the early hours of the morning after which the stigmas are removed, sundried and then packed for onward delivery to the markets. The unique flavor of saffron comes from phytochemicals such as safranal and picrocrocin. The golden-yellow color of the spice is due to crocin, a naturally-occurring carotenoid chemical compound found in the plant. The tedious production process, distinct color, and flavor, as well as potent medicinal properties, make saffron the topmost ingredient in several cuisines across the globe.
Interestingly, the skill of the harvester plays an important role in the quality and strength of the saffron. If the style is too little, the flavor will be weak. And if it’s not stored properly, it quickly breaks down, and the aroma and flavor become weak.
Iran is the saffron capital of the world, and the best saffron is produced in the Iranian city of Khorasan. While saffron is also made in few other places like Kashmir, Morocco, Austria, and Spain, nothing compares to the excellent flavor and breathtaking color of Persian saffron, which is why it is popularly called The Red Gold. Ounce for ounce, the saffron has been compared to the yellow metal by pundits, owing to the premium placed on the spice by royalty and nobility from ancient times up to this moment.
Saffron is not only an excellent spice, but its chemical makeup also makes it a superb dye and potent medicinal plant. It is estimated that saffron contains over 150 volatile and aromatic compounds the most important of which are carotenoids such as lycopene, alpha and beta carotenes, zeaxanthin, and the compound alpha crocin that gives the plant its dying abilities. This is why saffron is not only used for flavoring food but to also add color to non-fatty and water-based fishes in different cultures.
Saffron derives its distinctive aroma from a volatile oil called safranal while its unique flavor is the work of the bitter glucoside picrocrocin. Interestingly, picrocrocin has pesticidal and insecticidal properties, but it makes up only about four percent of the dry product and cannot do any harm to your food. Due to its organic makeup, saffron requires storage in air-tight containers as contact with atmospheric oxygen can affect its pH levels and result in a chemical imbalance that degrades the value of the spice.
Like everything in life, saffron is also graded into different categories, and this spice has its own International Standards Organization categories! The grades depend on the strength and quality, which also depend on many variables such as the age and the amount of style picked with the stigma. Categorization also depends on the place of production, but Persian saffron leads the pack.
Depending on the grade, a pound of saffron can sell from between $2000 to $11000, making it one of the most expensive spices in the world. But you don’t need a pound except you are feeding a city.
Our pure, handpicked 5gram 100 percent premium organic Persian saffron is the perfect spice to give your dishes that touch of royalty. It’s excellent for Indian, Italian, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cuisines and delivers an exceptional taste and aroma with a warm and earthy twist. It comes in airtight packaging to preserve its freshness and will serve you for up to four years with proper storage.