Saf­fron, the red gold with Kinda Bi­tar

Taste & Flavors - - CON­TENT -

WHAT IS SAF­FRON?

Saf­fron is the pur­ple-flow­ered saf­fron cro­cus, Cro­cus Sa­tivus, a bul­bous peren­nial of the iris fam­ily (Iri­daceae). The saf­fron flower is com­posed of six pur­ple petals, three golden yel­low sta­mens and one red pis­til, which is the fe­male sex or­gan of the plant. It is this pis­til made up of three stig­mas (fil­a­ments) which when dried up gives the spice saf­fron. Cro­cus Sa­tivus has a re­versed veg­e­ta­tion cy­cle, which means that the leaves come out in Septem­ber and the plant flow­ers in Oc­to­ber then dries up the fol­low­ing May. Saf­fron can be grown eas­ily. All one needs is a well draining soil and lots of sun. The bulb (specif­i­cally called corm) is planted at a depth of 15cm and it mul­ti­plies each year pro­duc­ing new corms.

WHY IS SAF­FRON SO EX­PEN­SIVE?

Saf­fron cul­ti­va­tion is rel­a­tively sim­ple, but the real dif­fi­culty is the in­tense la­bor needed to har­vest the plant, which makes it so ex­pen­sive. Only a small amount of each saf­fron flower is used, and all har­vest­ing must be done by hand. It also should be done at a speed, since after blos­som­ing at dawn, flow­ers quickly wilt as the day passes. All plants bloom within a win­dow of one or two weeks. Stig­mas are dried quickly upon ex­trac­tion and prefer­ably sealed in air­tight con­tain­ers. Around 150,000 saf­fron flow­ers are needed to har­vest one kilo of stig­mas and around 5 ki­los of stig­mas are needed to make one kilo of dried saf­fron use­able as a spice. All this re­quires enor­mous hours of work.

HOW IS SAF­FRON GRADED?

Saf­fron is not all of the same qual­ity and strength. One ma­jor cri­te­rion in grad­ing saf­fron is based on how the saf­fron is picked. Saf­fron from Iran, Spain and Kash­mir is clas­si­fied into var­i­ous grades ac­cord­ing to the rel­a­tive amounts of red stigma and yel­low style (slen­der stalk that con­nects the stigma to­gether with the ovary) it con­tains. The more the amount of style in­cluded in saf­fron the less strong it is gram for gram, be­cause the color and fla­vor are con­cen­trated in the red stigma. In ad­di­tion, saf­fron may be cat­e­go­rized un­der the in­ter­na­tional stan­dard ISO 3632 after lab­o­ra­tory mea­sure­ment of crocin (re­spon­si­ble for saf­fron color), pi­cro­crocin (taste), and safranal (fra­grance or aroma) con­tent. De­spite all at­tempts for qual­ity con­trol and stan­dard­iza­tion, fal­si­fi­ca­tion is ex­ten­sively prac­ticed, par­tic­u­larly among the cheap­est grades. Typ­i­cal meth­ods in­clude mix­ing in sub­stances like red-dyed silk fibers, or the saf­fron taste­less and odor­less yel­low sta­mens. Other meth­ods in­clude dous­ing saf­fron fibers with vis­cid sub­stances like honey or veg­etable oil to in­crease their weight. Pow­dered saf­fron is more prone to fal­si­fi­ca­tion, with turmeric, pa­prika, and other pow­ders used as di­lut­ing fillers.

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