Saffron, or to give it its full name, crocus sativus, is an autumnal-flowering perennial plant and it’s the most expensive spice that you can buy. In fact, weight for weight, it’s more expensive than gold. Each flower generates only three stigma, which are so light that it takes a quarter of a million flowers to produce just a kilo of saffron. Small wonder then at the high price as the flowers are so delicate that they have to be harvested by hand which makes it very labour intensive. Saffron may have originated in the Mediterranean and there are three-thousand-year old wall paintings from the Greek island of Santorini that show crocus pickers thus attesting to the great antiquity of the spice. It was certainly used at about the same time by the ancient Assyrians and the Persians. Initially saffron was seen as a medicine, helping to ease melancholy, as a body wash, as a perfume, and occasionally, even as an aphrodisiac. Both Alexander the Great and Queen Cleopatra used and valued saffron in a variety of roles. But by Roman times people were enjoying the delicate yet distinctive flavour and aroma of saffron in a variety of culinary dishes.
Saffron’s popularity grew in the Middle Ages in Europe and a town in England – Saffron Waldon – was so named for the fields of saffron that were cultivated in the locality. And saffron is being grown again in the area – after a gap of almost two hundred years. Colour is something we associate with saffron – the blueish purple fields of the crocus flowers and the rich orangey red of the actual crop. In Asia, Buddhist monks’ robes are often called “saffron” although they’re almost never dyed with so costly a substance Gamboge or turmeric is used instead.
These days we use saffron almost exclusively as a spice, although research is on-going into its medicinal value as a cancer treatment and as anti-depressant. It marries well with a number of dishes, particularly rice, fish, and vegetables. Use it to flavour sauces or add it to mayonnaise. Add a little to your coffee for an Arabic twist. Use it in risotto or when you are making the Spanish national dish, paella. Or follow the Iranian habit of adding it to sweet dishes like ice cream and pastries.
As saffron is so expensive, it is sometimes adulterated to make more of a profit. In the past in Switzerland you could be imprisoned of even executed for selling fake saffron. It’s worth buying your saffron from a respected source for this reason. You can get guaranteed pure high-grade saffron from the Tropical Spice Garden Shop in Penang either in person at one of the two shops or online. And if you want to learn more about how to use saffron and other spices, check out the Tropical Spice Garden Cooking School website for upcoming classes.