Spanish Saffron - the worlds most expensive spice

by Neil Morris

Never has there been a spice so cherished and coveted as Saffron. This ancient and mystical spice has been treasured by many civilizations across thousands of years. It has been at the centre of war, murder and treachery and has caused economical booms and political conflicts on its journey through the ages.

As well as its culinary use, saffron has been used for medicine, currency, religious ceremonies, perfumes, tinctures, textiles, colourings and make-up, the earliest traces of it use date back as far as fifty-thousand years. So next time you pinch a few strands of this aromatic wonder to add a touch of magic to a recipe, take a few seconds to appreciate the mystery of this delicate prize between your fingertips...

What is saffron?

Saffron is the gold of the spice world. These tiny and delicate dried stigmas of the crocus flower are both expensive and indulgent and just a pinch can add a touch of luxury to the simplest of dishes. Saffron has a wonderful bitter-sweet flavour and when used in cooking also releases a striking golden colour and a metallic honey fragrance that is unique and compelling.

The origins of saffron are so ancient that it is hard to say where it all began but saffron pigments have been discovered as far back as 50,000 years in Iran and it is believed that Southwest Asia is the native home of the spice. Cultivation of the modern form of the plant, with its impressive flame-coloured stem, can be traced back to Greece and the island of Crete in particular.

Today most of the world's saffron still comes from Iran with Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Italy and Afghanistan being the leading players amongst the other producers. Controversially, Iranian saffron is often imported to Spain where it is packaged and distributed under a local name. This is because the demand for saffron in Spain exceeds the production and, as a result, genuine Spanish saffron is more expensive.

Top quality Spanish saffron has a distinctive rusty colour and a crisp, almost brittle feel from the drying process. To ensure you are getting the best quality Spanish saffron it is advisable to buy from producers in the Azafrán de la Mancha D.O (Denominación de Origen), which was set up in 2001.

Saffron arrived in Spain via the Moors who introduced az-zafaran during the invasion of 711. The spice has remained an important part of Spanish cuisine ever since. In La Mancha, the flowers are harvested each October when the crocus petals open up to form a sea of purple that extends to the horizon. The flowers are picked on the same day to ensure the freshness and quality remains intact. The stigmas are then removed by hand and then dried and packed. It takes over 70,000 flowers to produce just 1 lb (450 g) of saffron.

Residents of the UK are often surprised to learn that England once produced some of the finest saffron in the world, in fact the town of Saffron Waldon in Essex was named after the spice that was grown there. This practice continued until around 200 years ago when cheaper foreign imports saw production reduced drastically. Today, saffron is once again being cultivated in the UK thanks to a small, intrepid band of growers.

To buy the finest grade of Spanish Saffron, please click here.

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