SAFFRON CROCUS (Crocus
The crocus is a
member of the iris family and has over 80 species. Other species of
crocus are said to be extremely poisonous, but C. sativus, a native
of Europe and southwestern Asia, has been cultivated since antiquity
for saffron. This autumn-flowering crocus produces a lovely purple flower.
Its bulbs (corms) are available in the U.S. and are hardy to zone 4,
but you should be aware that you will have to collect over 1600 blossoms
to collect the 5000 stigmas (the female part of the plant) to have 1
ounce of saffron.
The ancient Egyptians
dyed tunics with saffron, and Cleopatra used it for makeup and perfume.
In Persia, the wool for rugs was tinted with saffron and in Kashmir
it was used in coloring cashmere. Medieval doctors prescribed it as
a sedative. Today, besides being an exotic and expensive spice, it is
still used for coloring precious fabrics such as silk and the robes
of Buddhist monks. Historically, there have been some stiff penalties
for selling impure saffron. In 14th century Germany, anyone caught doing
this was burned at the stake, along with the bad saffron.
Spain is considered
the most important producer of saffron, perhaps because of its famous
dish, paella, but this is incorrect. Iran produces 150 to 170 metric
tons per year compared to Spain's one metric ton. Other producers are
Greece, Morocco, India (Kashmir), Turkey, France, and Italy (which produces
only 100 kilograms or less per year). According to one website, it is
illegal at the moment to import Iranian saffron, but another website
claims that it is selling Iranian saffron exclusively.
Three criteria determine
the quality of saffron: 1) Color should be bright red, with no other
colors mixed in. 2) The threads should be dry and brittle. This guarantees
long shelf life, provided it is kept in a sealed container and out of
light. It also makes it very easy to powder. 3) It should have a strong
aroma, never musty. A more effective way of selecting saffron, since
it is typically sold in sealed tin containers and since most of us do
not have a great deal of experience in judging saffron, is by using
the coloring strength rating of the International Organization for Standardization.
This is a photospectrometry method measuring the amount of saffron necessary
to color a given amount of water. The characteristics of color, flavor,
and aroma are all related to coloring strength. Category 1 saffron has
a minimum rating of 200, dropping to category 4 with a rating of 80.
The websites I have checked sell saffron in the range of $36 per ounce.
This seems exorbitant, but one gram costs about $1.25 and is usually
sufficient for four recipes. The price varies based on the yearly production
of the spice and how many middlemen are involved in the sale.
One debate in the
culinary field involves whether you should buy threads or powder. Those
in favor of the threads say it is much easier to adulterate powder.
Furthermore, the threads are more versatile since they are easily powdered
and can also be used in recipes calling for threads. Those in favor
of powder point out that the threads can also be adulterated. However,
the main advantage of powder is that it does not have to be steeped
(the threads do) and the essence is released very quickly. Interestingly,
saffron releases its essences over 24 hours, and leftovers are even
better on the second day. A number of websites carry recipes using saffron.
I once saw fields of these crocuses blooming in Yugoslavia, but I'm
not interested in growing hundreds of them for the spice I might use,
only for the beauty of a "spring" harbinger in the fall. However, I
do want to try some
Thanks to Peg
Steffensen for this report on saffron crocus for our May meeting.
of these delicious
recipes I have found, especially now that I realize the saffron I have
is not "the right stuff." I hope some of you will want to try various
sources with me to find out if there really is a difference in quality.