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On Food and Cooking

On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice: a testament not only to the labor required to produce it, but to its unique ability to impart both an unusual flavor and an intense yellow color to foods. It is a part of the flower of a kind of crocus, Crocus sativus, which was probably domesticated in or near Greece during the Bronze Age. The saffron crocus was carried eastward to Kashmir before 500 BCE; in medieval times the Arabs took it westward to Spain, and the Crusaders to France and England. (The name comes from the Arabic for “thread.”) Today Iran and Spain are the major producers and exporters. They use saffron in their respective rice dishes, pilaf and paella; the French in their fish stew, bouillabaisse; the Italians in risotto milanese; the Indians in biryanis and milk sweets.

The numbers that figure in saffron production are startling. It takes about 70,000 crocus flowers to produce 5 lb/2.25 kg of stigmas, the three dark red ends of the tube (“style”) that carries pollen down to the plant’s ovary. These 5 pounds in turn dry down to about 1 lb/450 gm of saffron. And because they’re so delicate, the stigmas are still harvested and separated from the other flower parts by hand, with nearly 200 hours of labor required for that same 1 pound of dried saffron. Each purple-petaled flower must be harvested on the same day that it begins to open, in late autumn. Once separated, the stigmas are carefully dried, either with a 30-minute toasting over a fire (Spain), or longer times in the sun (Iran), or in a warm room or modern oven.

The saffron crocus. Pure saffron consists of the dried stigmas, the deep red tips that catch pollen grains and send them down the long style to the ovary. Second-quality saffron often includes the pale, relatively flavorless styles.

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