Monday, May 5, 2008


I know-or think I know- that it's a spice, (what precisely is the definition of a spice?) and I also know it's very costly. I've certainly eaten it. I've even sold it in one of my past lives as a cheese, wine and etc. salesperson. Beyond that, what do I know about saffron? Nothing.

Until now.

The first thing I've learned is that it comes from the stigmas of crocuses. Is that the plural? (Future posts may be on a.) the crocus and b.) stigma in general. I never thought of stigma being so, well, floral.) Apparently, the crocus only has three stigmas per flower, which are also referred to as saffron threads. It takes a whopping 13, 125 threads to make a single ounce (I am skeptical that anyone has really taken the time to count the threads), so you can see why saffron is the world's most expensive spice. Oh, here's another way to visualize it--one acre yields 10 pounds... Think about it. An acre would generate a whole lot more than ten pounds of potatoes, folks.

Saffron is also a familiar color, and even after researching this, I remain unclear as to whether the flavor is as important to the gourmand's hot pursuit of it as the aesthetic stamp it gives to a dish. Certainly there is a consensus that a little goes a long way, which, given the cost, is just as well. I’ve also learned that it has medicinal uses, and that it was used as acure for melancholy, as well as an aphrodisiac. (Is there anything that hasn’t been used as an aphrodisiac?)

I thought I remembered something about saffron as a color of Buddhist robes, and I was right. I am still not sure if the color has a sacred meaning or not. It seems to have accumulated many meanings over time, and covers a wider section of the globe than I might have thought. Most conclude that saffron has Persian origins, and so it is not surprising that it spread as far as China along the trade routes. But I was a little more surprised to learn that it may have also ended up in Ireland. Well, there seems to be some dispute about that, because due to the nature of how one obtains saffron, it was always going to claim a high price, and when until possibly now could the Irish afford it?

Tumeric seems to have often been used as a familiar substitute, but I don't know if it fools the tongue.

I have a feeling that there is a lot more to say about saffron, so please talk amongst yourselves.

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