Saffron is one of the rarest and most expensive spices in the world today. The going retail rate of saffron can cost around $5,000 per pound! If that sounds like an exorbitant amount of money for a spice, it is. Like an exotic truffle, rich caviar or a fine bubbly, some things in life are strictly reserved for the rich and famous; or in this case, true spice lovers. It's usage as a spice dates back centuries; even being mentioned in the Bible. For many of us, including myself, it's hard to understand what makes the Crocus sativus flower and it's saffron so desirable...Until now. Just what is saffron? Why is it so expensive? And what on earth is it used for? Let's find out.
What is saffron?
Saffron comes from the beautifully vivid crocus flower (Crocus sativus). It is native to Southwest Asia, but can be found in many parts of the world. It flourishes and thus is widely produced in Mediterranean climates known for their warm, dry winds and semi-arid soils (ie. Spain, Italy, California). The crocus flower produces three brightly colored stigmas (see photo). These stigmas are then picked and dried out to produce the actual saffron spice. Countries like Iran, Spain, India, Greece, Morocco, and Italy are each known for producing and distributing many varieties of saffron. While Iran is the biggest producer of saffron in the world, Spain is it's biggest exporter.
Why is it expensive?
It has been said that saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. So expensive that many chefs will keep it locked up in a safe. If you can afford it, saffron can be used in many food dishes to accentuate flavor, aroma, and color. Is this why it's so expensive? Well, in part. The real reason behind it's high price tag begins with cultivation. In order to gather the saffron, the stigmas of the crocus flower must be handpicked. This becomes very time consuming, considering that in order to produce just 1 gram of saffron, it takes upwards of 300-500. The tedious work of hand-picking stigmas in order to produce saffron is one main reason for why it is so expensive.
What is saffron used for?
Saffron is often used in a variety of dishes to add rich color and a distinct sweet but bitter flavor. Paella is a traditional Spanish dish consisting of rice, seafood and/or meat, and saffron. The saffron gives the paella a bright yellow-orange glow. Saffron is also a main ingredient in other dishes across the world like Iranian chelow kabab, Italian rissotto, and Swedish bread. Aside from these regional favorites, it's often used in any seafood or rice dish, baked goods (scroll down) and even liquors. When looking at it's price tag, it's a good thing that a little goes a long way.
Aside from it's use in food, saffron is known to have many healing properties as well, in both recent and modern medicine. It was once ingested as a curing agent to help reduce fevers and cramps, and to calm nerves. It was also used to treat stomach-aches, smallpox, and the bubonic plague. Today, researchers have found saffron to work as an anti-aging remedy, and even to help fight against cancer.
Today, people not only still use saffron as flavoring and medicine, but to dye their clothes. After seeing the versatility of saffron spice, it's availability, and the labor involved in cultivation, it is easy to see why this popular spice comes at a fair price.