It’s happened lots of times. A recipe I’m planning on making calls for saffron, the jar that is mostly air with a small tangle of stiff, reddish-orange threads that can be found in the spice aisle. I add it to my grocery list and, when I get to the store and check out the price tag, decide that whatever it is I´m making will be tasty without it. Saffron is just too damn expensive.
In fact it´s one of the most valuable foods in the world, if not THE most valuable, right up there with truffles and caviar. Saffron is worth about $1,500 a pound right now, its hefty price tag a result of the amount of work it takes to produce. Two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand hand-picked crocus flowers makes only one pound of saffron, which comes from the three red stigmas in the center of the flower.
Making saffron even more high maintenance is that it requires a very specific climate to grow, blossoms for only a few weeks in the fall and is best harvested between dawn and 10am. Its yields are unpredictable, too; you never know just how many flowers will spring up.
But there’s no denying its sensual appeal. As Elizabeth Luard says in her book Saffron & Sunshine: Tapas, Mezze and Antipasti saffron is “subtle, elusive – a little of new-mown hay, a little of cinnamon, a hint of jasmine.” She goes on to say that it “is chiefly valued for its colour… not the vulgar yellow of the turmeric, nor the ivory yellow delivered by an infusion of marigold petals (which is labelled either Indian or Mexican saffron in Turkish markets) but a delicate yellow, like old gold, the colour of sunshine on sand.”
Iran produces 94% of the world’s saffron supply, but Spain (along with India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Italy) contributes to the remaining 6% and is recognized for being a high quality option. Not only are there saffron farms in the region I live in–Aragon–but it pops up here in my backyard, new purple blossoms every day, sometimes more. After gathering the purple flowers, which smell heady like gardenia or jasmine, we pluck the red stems and lay them on a plate to dry. It’s that easy.
In the days of old, saffron was used for currency, medicine, dye and for cooking, of course. Today we enjoy it for its color and the depth of flavor it adds to dishes like paella, risotto, bouillabaisse and in the Cornwall area of England, in cakes and buns. Adding to its charms, saffron is one of those spices that can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. That is, if you can afford it.