Saffron: The Gold We Eat

Saffron flower (Used with permission.)
Saffron flower

Once used as money instead of gold in Don Quixote’s Spain, saffron costs upwards of $1000 US per pound. Indeed, the world’s costliest spice.  Most likely you will not have ever seen saffron for sale in your local grocery’s spice department. Knowledgeable customers ask the store managers for it; they keep it behind the counter, safe from pilferers.

Why do cooks desire saffron?

Saffron lends an indescribable flavor to food. It also imparts a tenacious yellow color to anything it touches; combining one small part of saffron with 150,000 parts of water will cause the water to turn yellow, so powerful is saffron’s coloring agent, crocin. Stemming from the stigmas of the blue crocus, Crocus sativus, workers harvest saffron by hand, a  costly process unchanged for centuries. Around 100,100 flowers make 2.2 pounds of dried saffron. All three factors—taste, coloring properties, and cost—make saffron as sought after today as in Roman times, where small amounts of it could buy slaves and other goods.

Saffron originated in Asia Minor and spread throughout the Mediterranean area over the centuries. Murals at the ruined palace of Knossos on Crete portray saffron harvesters at work in 2000 B.C.  Mentioned in the Bible’s “Song of Solomon,” saffron was used as a dye for cloth and leather goods throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Phoenican sailors left a taste for saffron behind in Cornwall, England, where currants and saffron bedeck on of the most popular of all Christmas breads, Hot-Cross Buns. Buddhist monks color their robes with saffron.

Today, in modern Morocco, visitors to the ancient city of Fez watch dyers using saffron on sheepskins, just as their ancestors did centuries ago. Arabs brought saffron, or za’faran, to Europe via Spain in 961 A.D. And Spain remains one of the greatest producers of saffron in the world, primarily because the sandy, loamy soil there is beneficial to Crocus sativus.

Medieval England also took to saffron in a big way, and in spite of difficulties in growing it in that climate, the English did grow it and used it in breads, including the famed hot-cross buns. Some food historians suggest that because locally grown saffron was cheaper than eggs in those areas, cooks added saffron to bread dough instead of the more costly eggs. To this day, many festive bread recipes worldwide call for saffron, in the case of the Hot-Cross Buns mentioned above and others like traditional Swedish saffron buns.

Throughout the world, cooks add saffron to many dishes, mostly breads, meat preparations, Spanish paella, and desserts. In the United States, saffron appears in rice principally for flavoring and coloring. The following recipes provide a wonderful introduction to the taste of saffron. Remember, a little goes a long way. That’s fortunate, literally, because eating saffron is like eating gold…it’s that expensive!

[Hint: When preparing your saffron for cooking, allow it to dissolve beforehand in some of the liquid called for in the recipe. Never expose saffron directly to high heat or air. Store saffron in a glass container, away from light and heat.]

Saffron Rice (Used with permission.)
Saffron Rice

Serves 6

1/2 t. saffron threads

1/2 cup boiling water

1 small onion, minced fine

2 T. olive oil

1 cup long-grained rice

1 garlic clove, minced

1 1/4 cup chicken stock (unsalted) or water

1/4 cup dry white wine

1/2 small bay leaf

1 t. salt

1 cup cooked green peas

2 T. parsley, finely chopped

1. Place the saffron threads in the boiling water and let stand while you do prepare the rest of the recipe.

2. Fry the onion in the olive oil over medium heat in a medium-size saucepan until onion turns golden in color, stir in the rice and garlic. Cook, stirring constantly, until rice begins to turns chalky white. Pour in the saffron water, the chicken stock, and the wine. Stir and add the bay leaf and the salt. Stir again, reduce the heat the low, cover, and cook until rice is done, about 20 minutes.

3. Remove rice from heat, cover with a clean tea towel, and replace the pan cover. Let rice sit for 10 minutes like this, and then transfer it to a serving dish, remove bay leaf, stir in the peas, and garnish the top with the parsley. Serve immediately.

Tagine (Used with permission.)


Serves 6-8

3 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks

3 T. butter

1 T. oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced

1/2 t. saffron

Salt to taste

1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper

1 t. ginger

1/2 t. ground cinnamon

1/4 cup chopped coriander leaves

2 cinnamon sticks

1 pound prunes, pitted

1/3 cup honey

1 T. sesame seeds

1 cups toasted blanched almonds

1. Fry the meat in the butter and oil until browned. Stir in the onion and brown. Dissolve the saffron in 1 cup of hot water. Add the saffron water, salt, pepper, ginger, ground cinnamon, and coriander. Just barely cover meat with water, cover pan, and cook on low heat for about 1 hour or until meat is tender.

2. While the meat is cooking, cook the prunes over medium heat, uncovered, in 2 cups of water with the cinnamon sticks and the honey. Keep an eye on the prunes and add water if necessary to prevent scorching. You will need 1 cup of water from the prunes. [Discard the cinnamon sticks.]

3. To serve, remove the meat and the plumped prunes from their respective pans, and place on warmed serving tray. Add prune water to meat pan and boil down sauce until slightly thick. Pour sauce over meat, top with almonds and sesame seeds. Serve with plenty of bread and fresh green salad.

For further reading and enjoyment:

The Essential Saffron Companion, by John Humphries (1998).

Saffron & Currants: A Cornish Heritage Cookbook, by Susan Pellowe (1998).

Saffron, Garlic, & Olives, by Loukie Werle (1999).

Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World’s Most Seductive Spice, by Pat Willard (2002).

© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen

7 thoughts on “Saffron: The Gold We Eat

  1. Great piece on saffron. It is an essential ingredient in Moroccan cuisine. To lessen the expense, it is often combined with turmeric (for color). But you can’t forego saffron’s unique flavor and aroma.

    FYI: Prunes=berqukk (not babcock!) in Moroccan Arabic
    Kitty Morse
    author, Cooking at the Kasbah

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