Saffron is harvested from the three stigmas of the Crocus Sativus flower. The flower has to be hand picked, the stigma removed, and then separated. There is no machine that will do this job. Only human hands are capable of picking the threads without damaging them.
What’s in the name? Saffron is from the Arabic word zafaran which means ‘yellow’. The French culinary term safrané means ‘coloured using saffron’. The colouring properties of Saffron have been prized as much as its unique flavor.
Where does Saffron come from? It spread out from Ancient Persia, down through the Mediterranean peninsula, and up into China, and throughout India, where it was quickly adopted for dying Buddhist monk robes and anointing deities.
There is an International grading system of Saffron that controls the quality that is exported. Spain is the largest exporter of Saffron, and India has a ban on exporting the highest grade that they produce. Usually in America we can obtain “La Mancha”, a middle grade Saffron that contains few impurities. “Coupe” or Creme” is the purest form containing less waste then the other grades.
Saffron has a long history of being adulterated. Over the centuries, up to modern times additives have been found in Saffron. These include beets, pomegranate fibers, red-dyed silk fibers, or the saffron crocus’s tasteless and odorless yellow stamens. Ground Saffron (not recommended) has been found to have turmeric, paprika and other powders added to dilute the product. If you are going to make such an investment, make sure you find a reliable source to order from. The higher grade will reward you with flavor and beauty.
During Colonial expansionism saffron became a highly traded commodity, and those caught adulterating or diluting the spice were imprisoned and then executed. Once trade routes were secured and stable alliances made, and the Spice Wars stopped taking so many lives, people would not die over mixing a bit of impurity into Saffron. Still, to this day, it is a punishable offense.
How to cook with Saffron: If you are lucky enough to afford this spice, then add just a pinch to boiling water to “bloom” the saffron, then add the rice and stir thoroughly so you don’t get uneven white patches in the rice.
Here are some links to find out more about Saffron. One tip: Remember, Saffron IS NOT Safflower, they are not even related.