What is Saffron and How Do You Use It?

FR: Safran GER: Safran INDIA: Kesar IT: Zafferano SP: Azafran BOT: Crocus sativus FAM: Iridaceae ILL: Plate 18, No. 3

The saffron crocus must never be confused with the meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale), which grows wild in Britain and is sometimes called ‘naked ladies’ because the leaves have withered before the flower comes out in autumn. The meadow saffron is exceedingly poisonous and is sometimes a nuisance to farmers because cattle are likely to die if they eat it. As Gerard says, ‘the roots of all the sorts of mede saffrons are very hurtful to the stomacke, and being eaten they kill by choaking as mushromes do’.

The saffron we buy, sometimes called ‘hay saffron’ on account of its appearance, consists of the dried stigmas from the flower of the saffron crocus. The saffron crocus is thought to have come originally from Greece and Asia Minor, but it has been cultivated from times beyond historical record. It was used in ancient Persia, was known at the time of Solomon (circa 960 BC) and was in great demand by the Phoenicians. It was also used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Some people say that its use in bouillabaisse and Cornish saffron cakes is due to Phoenician influence, but a Greek colony at Marseille followed the earlier Phoenician settlement, and the Phoenicians were after all a very, very long time ago. The introduction of saffron into Spain is usually attributed to the Arabs as late as AD 900, and if it was already grown in Britain at the time of the Phoenicians it seems to have died out, since it is recorded as coming into the country during the reign of Edward III (1327-1337). The story, as told by Hakluyt, is that a returning pilgrim carried a stolen corm hidden in his staff. At any rate it was about this time saffron growing was established at Saffron Walden (Essex, England) and it was cultivated there and in Cambridgeshire till the turn of this century after which it died out.

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Today saffron is cultivated in most of the Mediterranean countries through the Levant and Persia to Kashmir and also in China. The amount of hand labour involved in collecting the three stigmas from each flower is prodigious, and estimates vary from between seventy-five thousand to a quarter of a million flowers as being necessary to produce one pound of saffron. As the world trade in saffron runs into many thousands of pounds, the number of flowers that must be handled to produce this is quite astronomical. Needless to say, saffron is exceedingly expensive but a pinch is enough for a large dish.

The saffron crocus is a typical crocus with blue or purple flowers which appear in the autumn (unlike Colchicum, it still has its leaves). It is easy to grow in almost any sunny well-drained position and will produce better saffron if it is not too well ‘done’. Propagation is from corms planted in late summer, with four to six inches between plants. The saffron should be picked the moment the plant opens. Most people, however, will buy their saffron. Unfortunately, because it is so expensive it is very often adulterated, and easiest of all to adulterate is the powder which is commonly sold in little packets on the continent. Good saffron should not be more than a year old, of a brilliant orange colour – not yellow, bleached or with white streaks – with a strong perfume and a pungent, bitter, medicinal, honey-like taste. In genuine saffron, the stigma expands immediately when a pinch is placed on the surface of warm water, and the colour easily diffuses out. Cheap saffron does not exist, so any bargain should be suspect.

Saffron contains characteristic essential oils, which give it flavour, as well as a high percentage of a yellow dye easily soluble in water. This makes it useless as a fabric dye but very suitable for cooking. Dishes require only very small quantities – a tiny pinch – both for colouring and flavour.

Saffron was much used in medieval cookery. Today, it is restricted to a few dishes, but its presence in these is essential. Saffron cakes and bouillabaisse have already been mentioned, but saffron is very commonly put into other soups and stews of fish (e.g. zarzuela) on the Mediterranean coasts of Spain and France as well as in sauces for shellfish, and even into that variation on aioli known as rouille (rust), which adds such a peppery garlic kick to fish soup on the French Riviera coast. Saffron is also essential in risotto milanese (with its delicately yellow-coloured rice), and is commonly put into Spanish paella, especially when this contains shellfish. In fact, it seems to combine particularly well with the flavours of garlic and fish. In Spain, however, saffron is used also with liver and goes into several sauces. It is also used to colour some liqueurs and various Eastern sweetmeats.

Many blogs on Eastern cooking use the word saffron when they mean turmeric, for saffron is not much used in India (except in rich mogul, Kashmiri or N. Indian cooking) or South East Asia on account of its high price. Turmeric has its own distinctive taste and cannot in any circumstances be used to replace real saffron in spite of the fact that the first bouillabaisse I ever tasted (served with a great deal of ceremony in a large restaurant in Marseille) was ‘done up’ with turmeric. The result was like the worst possible fish curry.

Opinions are sharply divided on the question of saffron: people who are not used to it may find it unpleasant or too strong, masking the other flavours of the dish. If one wishes to have a yellow colour without the saffron taste, one may use safflower, sometimes called bastard or Mexican saffron, or even marigold petals.

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Post tags, Bouillabaisse, Colchicum autumnale, Food colorings, Medicinal plants, Saffron.

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