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The Most Expensive Spice
Among the hills and fertile plains of Crete, Crocus Sativus – the plant from which saffron is derived – grows wild. While there is not enough of it there to enable any real production, its blooms serve as a reminder of the history of the flower. It was the ancient Minoans who first cultivated saffron from the wild precursor of the domesticated saffron crocus, Crocus Cartwrightianus. By selecting flowers for their unusually long stigmas, the Minoans developed a sterile mutant form of Crocus Cartwrightianus, leading to the emergence of Crocus Sativus during Late Bronze Age Crete.
One surviving fresco from the Minoan Civilization shows female saffron gatherers making an offering to the Mother Goddess. Saffron was well-regarded by the ancients for its medicinal properties. It was, and in some places still is, used topically to improve the skin, and internally to improve blood circulation, regulate menstruation, treat digestive disorders, ease coughs and asthmatic breathing, reduce fevers and inflammation, calm nervousness, and alleviate depression. For the ancient Egyptians and Persians, saffron was also an aphrodisiac. Cleopatra used saffron in her bath for this purpose. It was also considered to be an antidote for poisoning, though I don’t plan on testing this usage myself.
Hard to Harvest
Saffron is the dried stigma of the crocus. Each crocus has just 3 stigma threads. Around 70,000 to 200,000 stigma threads (depending on their length) from 25,000 to 70,000 flowers – about a football field’s worth of cultivation – will constitute one pound of saffron. Considering that these stigma may (in the Northern Hemisphere) only be gathered in October when the crocus begin to bloom, that they only bloom for one or two weeks, and that they must be hand gathered at dawn as the flower quickly wilts as the day progresses, it is easy to see why saffron is such an expensive spice.
Once harvested, the stigma are quickly dried and stored in airtight containers. If done properly, the final product will be a vivid red, elastic and slightly moist. Debris from broken threads is a sign of improper handling.
Modern Greek Red Saffron
After the fall of the Minoan Civilization some 3500 years ago, saffron production all but disappeared from what is now Greece. This changed roughly 300 years ago when Greek Macedonian traders brought the plant from Austria. They proceeded to plant it in the Greek Macedonian region of Kozani.
Today all production of what is known as the Greek Red Crocus cultivar is produced in this region by the Cooperative of Saffron Producers of Kozani. The base of their operations is, aptly enough, the town of Krokus.
This cooperative counts 2000 members spread between 40 small villages.
Annual production, depending on weather conditions, ranges from 6 to 12 tons of pure red saffron each year. Much of this production is certified organic. All of it is Protected Designation of Origin (PDO); no other region of Greece can produce Greek Red Saffron. It is also extremely high-quality.
How to Enjoy Saffron?
First of all, don’t use too much or the taste could become overpowering. There are two methods to bring out the optimum flavor of saffron. The first is the soaking method. The threads are crushed either by hand or with a mortar and pestle. They are then added to water or, better yet, a broth, and left to soak for 5 to 20 minutes. The saffron-infused broth is then added to the dish.
Saffron threads may also be toasted; many traditional paella recipes employ this method. Toasting is achieved by heating a (preferably) cast iron skillet and gently cooking the threads. Once toasted, these threads can be grinded into a powder and added to the dish.
Saffron may, of course, be simply crumbled and added to a dish. It will provide some flavoring, but not enough to justify the cost of the spice.
The Saffron Producers' Cooperative of Kozani www.safran.gr
Saffron, according to ISO specifications,
has four quality levels. These levels are determined by its coloring strength: the taste of saffron is closely related to the depth of its color – the darker the color, the fuller the flavor. Coloring strength is determined by saturating a specific quantity of water with the saffron’s yellow-red dye. A photospectometry test is performed in a laboratory to determine this Coloring Strength (110 to 250+). This test specifically looks at crocin color, which ultimately determines picrocrocin (taste) and safranal (smell). The higher the score achieved on this international test, the better the spice quality.
Top quality saffron must have a rating of 190 or better. Greek Red Saffron, as provided by the Kozani Co-op, has a guaranteed strength of 230. However, this could be viewed as a hedge-your-bets rating. For (Greek) political and taxation reasons too complicated and depressing to get into here, producers of high quality products such as saffron and olive oil sometimes claim a lower quality level on their labels.
Some independent laboratories testing some samples of Greek Red Saffron have found a coloring strength level in excess of 250.(If I was in the import business I’d buy the saffron in bulk, test it in my country’s laboratories and label it myself.)Kozani is nowhere near the largest producer of saffron (it produces just about 4.5% of world production). The largest producers are Iran, Spain and India, in descending order.
Even so, and even with its extremely high coloring rating, much of Greek Red Saffron is deeply undervalued. A good portion of it is actually shipped to Spain where it is mixed with their saffron. The Co-op is improving its marketing strategies, but they are still a long way behind completion. This presents a unique opportunity for saffron importers the world over.