Aah Saffron

 Do you count the threads one by one when you need to add saffron to a dish you’re cooking? Or are you rather liberal with these earthy, fragile crimson threads?  Or have you baulked at the price, and shied away? 

The most expensive spice on earth

Saffron, the most expensive spice on earth, is at the mercy of food adulterers.  Not surprising, when you consider the price per kilogram.  

They say it takes 120 000 Crocus Sativus flower plants to yield one kilogram of saffron threads, which costs R200 000.  Each crocus flower has just three stigma. 

Each Crocus Sativus flower has three stigma
Photo by Mehdi Torabi on Unsplash

The stigma have to be picked by hand on the morning the flower blooms.  It is a labour intensive process, done uniformly throughout the world. 

Iran or Greece?

There is some debate about the origins of saffron, originating in either Iran (where it is a native species) OR Greece, where it had been domesticated since the Bronze age.  

Harvesting saffron in Qaen, South Khorasan Province, Iran
Photo by Artam Hoomat on Unsplash

Grown in more countries

Saffron is now grown in South Africa, Italy, Belgium, Spain, India, Afghanistan, France, and Morocco to name a few countries.  Each country appears to have a dish which uses saffron for its distinctive taste and colour.

How do you experience the taste?

The taste of saffron is described as being earthy and also sweet or floral.  Perhaps there is a degree of partiality involved as everyone experiences saffron’s taste differently.  

Safranal, picrococin and crocin

The oil contained within the stigma imparts its aroma, flavour and colour.  Picrococin, safranal and crocin are the three major components in the oil.  The earthy taste is due to picrocrocin and crocin imparts the characteristic yellow flavour.  Saffron’s aroma comes from safranal.  

Saffron threads: Earthy, floral or sweet?
Photo by Mohammad Amiri on Unsplash

Safranal from picrocrocin

Safranal is formed from picrocrocin during the drying process.  The scientific literature abounds with the medical applications of safranal.  The medical applications are as diverse as its antioxidant activity ,  and it is useful for treating depressive disorders.  

Picrocrocin shows authenticity

Picrocrocin is found only in saffron.  It is used as a useful biomarker to indicate the authenticity of the saffron threads.  It’s quite useful to have a compound that occurs solely in the pure saffron to indicate its authenticity.  Stigma from the Gardenia jasminoides is most often passed off as saffron.  

A little goes a long way

If you’re like me and tend to err on the side of generosity, it would do you well to remember a little bit of saffron goes a long way.  Perhaps it’s a good idea to start experimenting with saffron in your cooking.  But make sure it’s the genuine stuff. 

One Response

  1. Insightful read – thank you. I prefer resorting to natural remedies for various ailments but I was not aware of the extensive safranal pharmacological effects and its effect on the central nervous system. I’ll certainly add saffron to my stash of dual-purpose ingredients.

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