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07.14.09

In Search of the $10,000 Spice

Saffron's title of world's most expensive spice is no joke: at thousands of dollars per pound, you could be buying truffles or caviar or gold. And actually, saffron and gold have a lot in common.

Saffron’s title of world’s most expensive spice is no joke: And actually, saffron and gold have a lot in common. They are both beautiful rich colors; throughout history, they’ve been counterfeited uncountable times; and they’re both edible. But saffron’s got things going for it that gold can only imagine, like aroma, paella, and aphrodisiacal effects (though some would argue that gold’s got the sex market cornered). In any event, saffron has held the attention of gods and mortals for about as long as there have been gods and mortals, who are at the core of the saffron creation myth.

There are competing stories about the origins of saffron. The first goes something like this: One day Crocus and his friend, the god Hermes, were hanging out in Ancient Greece, tossing around the discus, when Hermes’ disc hit Crocus in the head and killed him. Three drops of Crocus’ blood spilled on the ground and transformed into a small flower with three shiny red stigmas, and thus the crocus flower from which we get saffron.

Ready for myth No. 2? This story also features Crocus, who falls deeply in love with the woodland nymph Smilax, who unfortunately doesn’t love him back. Tired of being pursued by Crocus, Smilax transforms him into a flower with three bright orange stigmas as a symbol of his undying passion for her. And then she herself becomes a sarsaparilla vine, the reasons of which are unclear.

If you're still doubtful, here is some verifiable, nonmythological information about saffron to help you tell your stamen from your stigma, figure out how to use the stuff, and an explanation of why one such herb may just break your bank.

1.) Why saffron is so damn expensive. Saffron is the dried stigmas (the female reproductive parts) of the saffron crocus ( Crocus sativus). Each crocus flower has three stigmas, and each stigma must be handpicked to maintain the stigma’s integrity. Sounds simple enough. Except that saffron crocuses are only in bloom for one to two weeks in the fall, and the stigmas are so delicate that the crocus flowers must be removed from the plants early in the morning so that the sun and wind of the day won’t damage the stigmas. Then comes the meticulous work of carefully removing the stigmas from the flowers by hand and then drying them, a process in which the saffron will lose up to 80 percent of its original weight. And what do you get for all the hard work?

It takes about 70,000 crocus blossoms or 210,000 stigmas to yield just a pound of saffron. (That’s a football field’s worth of crocuses.) The wholesale price of a pound of saffron can vary from as little as $500 to as much as $5,000, with retail prices anywhere from $5,000 per pound to $10,000 per pound. And this year prices are higher than usual—but don’t blame the economy. “Talking about price today is not talking about price under normal conditions,” says saffron importer Buddy Born of Bacstrom Import Company. “This year is like no other year in my 28-year history of doing this.” Last year, Iran—the world’s largest producer of saffron—was hit with a freeze in the winter and a drought in the summer, creating disastrous conditions for saffron crocuses. “Right off the bat, prices were double,” said Born, “and last year they were already high.” Luckily for consumers, a little saffron goes a long way.

2.) Where the best (and the rest) comes from. Native to Southwest Asia, saffron was first cultivated in Greece and later all around the world, from Japan to India to Morocco, Kashmir to Turkey to Lancaster, Pennsylvania (yes, Pennsylvania). Saffron crocuses grow best in rich, drained soil and dry, warm environments such as the Mediterranean and the Middle East and, perhaps most famously, La Mancha, Spain. According to Born, Spain used to produce about 70 percent of the world’s saffron crop, but today produces less than 5 percent. Why the drastic decrease? Born explains that in the post-Franco years, Spain has undergone a major cultural modernization and become one of the leading world economies. To compete in the global saffron market, then, laborers can only be paid a very low wage. “In Spain, people can no longer really afford that,” says Born. “Less and less people have been willing to grow it there, which has gone hand in hand with the Iranians producing more and more.” Iran has been producing so much saffron, in fact, that Spain has begun to import Persian saffron, repackage it, and sell it as Spanish. The Iranians have more or less taken over the market.

At its peak, Iran has been producing anywhere from 120 to 200 tons of saffron per year. But with this past year’s extreme weather, Iran’s production is way down, and rumors are that Iran has only produced 30 to 80 tons of saffron this year. (Remember how Born said prices were so off? This is why.) One thing’s for sure, says Born: “Way less saffron for the world market.”

The question still lingers, though: Where does the best saffron in the world come from? La Mancha? Qaen, Iran? Macedonia? It depends who you ask: "Part of that has to do with our memory and our olfactory senses. If you grew up on Persian saffron, then your memory and olfactory’s tied in together and that’s the flavor that you believe is how it’s supposed to be.” OK, but really, where does the best saffron come from? “What it comes down to,” says Born, “is that there is really high-quality saffron and really low-quality saffon grown in every saffron-producing country. Born remains nonpartisan: "I’m not to say one country’s saffron is better than the other.”

3.) What to do with the stuff. Traditionally, saffron has two main uses: as a dye (for textiles, paints, hair, etc.) and as a spice for cooking. (Since we won’t be hand-dying our clothing any time soon, let’s skip to the cooking.) Wherever saffron is grown, foods have been developed to showcase its magic: The French have bouillabaisse, the Italians have risotto Milanese, the Spanish have paella, India has biryani, curry, and kulfi, and Iran has a whole host of saffron-infused dishes. And saffron can be added to any number of plain foods to make them magical (saffron mashed potatoes, anyone?). But in order to make the most of saffron, you need to know how to handle the precious threads. The secret is infusion.

By infusing the saffron in liquid and letting it steep for half an hour, you will be able to convey the full flavor, color, and aroma that are the hallmarks of the spice. Making the infusion is simple, just like making tea: One pinch of saffron threads in about 8 ounces of liquid will generally yield the right intensity of flavor. And while you can make the infusion with hot water, you can also use any other liquid that you’re going to cook with, including meat or vegetable stocks, citrus juice, and even alcohol.

There’s also powdered saffron, which does not need to go through the process of infusion before it can be used. Additionally, powdered saffron can be more accurately measured than whole threads. So if you have high-quality saffron, you should feel free to grind it yourself with a mortar and pestle. But powdered saffron brings up issues of “adulteration,” as the quality and purity of the saffron may have been compromised with the addition of turmeric or safflower to saffron. And some adulterators will dye styles—the part of the pistil between the flower’s ovary and stigma—so that they look like saffron threads, which is the equivalent of being sold oregano instead of marijuana. In 15th-century Germany, saffron adulterators were fined, imprisoned, and executed. Yikes.

A final thing to keep in mind when cooking with saffron is the type of dish you’re making and its location of origin. For example, a European dish might taste most right when made with Spanish saffron, while an Indian dish might be better suited to Iranian or Kashmiri saffron. But it’s all a matter of taste. Taste, and how many different kinds of saffron you’ve got lying around.

4.) Medicinal properties. Saffron has long been acknowledged as a powerful medicinal tool. Medieval Europeans used it to treat the common cold and cough. Ancient Persians used saffron as an aphrodisiac. Additionally, the spice has been credited with alleviating everything from acne to depression to cancer to bug bites, and plays a significant role in ayurvedic and other holistic and alternative medicines. But can saffron really relieve the pain of arthritis, sore throats, and menstrual cramps, as some believe? “I think we can accurately say that saffron is high in riboflavin and B vitamins, and I think we can say that it’s a mild euphoric. So if you make a saffron tea, it’s going to make you feel a little better,” says Born. Scientific research suggests that saffron’s naturally occurring pigments have anti-carcinogenic and anti-mutagenic properties and can alter immune function. But don’t go swallowing the whole jar; an overdose of saffron can be fatal.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor at Cookstr.com. She lives in New York City.