Native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, it was used by the ancient civilizations of the region as a dye and to flavor food and wine. Saffron consists of the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, or roses as they’re called.
Spain is the main producer; at harvest time on the plain of La Mancha, a heady, sensual aroma explodes around you as the stigmas are toasted. It takes about 80,000 roses to yield 2.5 kg of stigmas, which produce 500g of saffron after toasting.
About Taste: The taste is delicate yet penetrating, warm, earthy, musky, bitter, and lingering. The smell of saffron is unmistakable: rich, pungent, musky, floral, honeyed, and tenacious. The aromatic properties vary slightly depending on the saffron’s place of origin.
Parts Used: Stigmas.
Buying & Preserving: Buy saffron only from a reliable supply; in tourist markets all over the world turmeric, marigold petals, and safflower are passed off as saffron. None has saffron’s penetrating aroma, so smell before buying. If you use saffron frequently, buy it in bigger quantities from a spice store. Buy dried stamens (filaments or threads); ground saffron is easily adulterated. Threads preserve their flavor for 2–3 years if stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
Harvesting: The violet-colored crocus flowers in fall. The flowers are picked at dawn and the three red stigmas are plucked from each one. Small quantities are toasted on a drum sieve over a low fire. Dried stamens are deep red to orange-red, wiry, and brittle.
Saffron has long been renowned as a dye, whether for the robes of Buddhist monks or for paella and risotto. For most dishes saffron is infused in liquid. If an infusion is added in the early stages of cooking it’ll impart more color; added at a later stage it contributes more aromatics. Avoid overuse: it can give a bitter, medicinal taste to foods. If a dish doesn’t call for liquid, threads can be ground and stirred in. If they aren’t quite dry, dry-roast lightly before grinding. Several cultures flavor specific dishes with saffron, usually dishes associated with festivals or celebrations. Saffron gives the characteristic taste for many Mediterranean fish soups and stews of which Provençal bouillabaisse and Catalan zarzuela are the best known. It adds class to a simple stew of mussels and potatoes or a fish baked in white wine. Saffron rice is great as a Valencian paella, risotto alla Milanese, an Iranian polo, a Moghul biryani, or a simple vegetable pilaf. In Sweden, saffron buns and cakes are made for the festival of light on December 13, St. Lucia’s Day. Traditional Cornish saffron desserts and breads have all but disappeared from Britain, but they aren’t difficult to make and have a nice, rich flavor. Saffron ice cream, whether in the European style, Middle Eastern with mastic, or Indian kulfi, is also worth a try.
Whole threads: The best-quality saffron is deep red; this is known as coupe for Spanish and Kashmiri saffron, sargol for Iranian. A proportion of thicker, yellow threads from the style of the flower is included in the next grade, Mancha if Spanish or Kashmiri, poshal or kayam if Iranian. Good-quality saffron is also produced in Greece and Italy. Lesser grades are likely to have a brownish colour and stubby, rather untidy threads.
Ground threads: Ground saffron is easily adulterated with cheaper and inferior spices.
Kashmiri coupe: This saffron has a rich, burgundy colour. The threads are very long, firm, and smooth.
Iranian poshal: This saffron has deep red, wiry threads with a few yellow styles.
Spanish mancha: Spanish Mancha saffron is more orange-red in colour with yellow styles.
Good with asparagus, carrots, eggs, chicken, fish and seafood, mushrooms, leeks, pheasant, rabbit, rice, spinach, winter squashes. Combines well with anise, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, fennel, mastic, pepper, nutmeg, rosebuds, paprika, rose water.