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Exploring Saffron: The World's Most Expensive Spice

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

exploring-saffron-the-worlds-most-expensive-spice

The Harvest Begins Before Dawn

There is a slight chill in the air; the ambient temperature about 12 degrees Celsius. It is the first day of October and the day is new; the time is 5:00 a.m.

Sunrise will begin in about one hour, but the women are already crouching in the fragrant fields, beginning the harvest. Soon the monochromatic dawn will give way to a panorama of dazzling colors—golden soil, brilliant blue skies, and a field of rich purple. The workers will toil for 12 hours, but the gleaning must be quick. The sun’s warmth will wilt the blossoms, so there is an urgency to retrieve the two-inch tall crocus flowers. But that is just the beginning.

Saffron crocus blooming in a field, ready for harvest

Saffron crocus blooming in a field, ready for harvest

After the blossoms are plucked from the bulb, there are still many more hours of labor ahead. Each flower is grasped not by machine but by hand. The flower is discarded . . . after the three fragile red-orange stigmas are carefully removed by hand with tweezers. Yes, just three per flower—225,000 stigmas will result in one pound of the saffron spice.

There are 75 varieties of crocus, but only one, the Crocus sativus (sativus is Latin for cultivated) produces saffron.

Why Is Saffron So Treasured?

Saffron is grown in Spain, India, and Greece, but the dominant producer is Iran, where 90 percent of the world’s harvest is gathered, mostly by women, who toil 12-hour days for a maximum of $5 per day. The growing season is short, beginning in late September and ending in early December.

Why is this spice so highly treasured?

The saffron crocus has been cultivated for at least 5,000 years, originating near Persia (present-day Iran). Although today it is recognized for the exotic flavors and colors it imparts to Mediterranean dishes, in ages past it was favored for its purported medicinal qualities.

  • Alexander the Great is said to have used saffron on his campaigns through Persia using it as an antiseptic to heal battle wounds.
  • In Northeast Sri Lanka, the Tamil people have used it for more than 2,000 years as a cure for headaches and to aid in labor and delivery.
  • It has been documented that Cleopatra soaked in saffron-infused baths, believing the spice to be an aphrodisiac.
  • Saffron used as a curative for the bubonic plague (“Generall Historie of Plants”, by John Gerarde, 1597).

It was used in the arts. Medieval monks used a mixture of saffron dust and egg whites as a substitute for gold paint in their manuscripts. And, once upon a time, Buddhist monks used saffron to dye their yellow robes. (Today they use the much less costly turmeric as a substitute.)

Recipes

Saffron can be added to countless dishes, but the ones I present here are not merely any recipe (fill in the blank) and add a pinch of saffron. These are foods created by people in the Mediterranean/Middle East area and are a representation of how local herbs and spices are used in their homes.

Eggless Saffron Cookies

Eggless Saffron Cookies

Eggless Saffron Cookies

Anushruti is a recipe developer, food writer, and photographer living in Mumbai, India. Her eggless saffron cookies are buttery like shortbread, filled with the unique flavors of saffron and pistachio nuts, and the most amazing golden color.

North African Chicken with Honey and Saffron

North African Chicken with Honey and Saffron

North African Chicken With Honey and Saffron

I found this recipe for chicken with honey and saffron on the Yummly website. I have simplified the list of ingredients and instructions and present the rewrite below:

Ingredients

  • 1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces, or 4 pounds chicken legs and thighs
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped, about 1 cup
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons fresh ginger, finely grated
  • 1 2-inch piece cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 28 ounces canned diced tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon harissa paste
  • 1 1/4 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron strands
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
  • 2 tablespoons sliced almonds
  • 1 bunch fresh coriander (coarsely chopped)
  • 1 bunch fresh mint (leaves finely chopped)

Instructions

  1. Skin the chicken pieces. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a sauté pan or shallow flameproof casserole. Add the chicken and fry, turning, until browned all over. Lift onto a plate and keep warm.
  2. Add the rest of the oil and the onion to the pan, then cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for 6-7 minutes until soft and golden. Add the garlic, fresh ginger and cinnamon, then cook for 2-3 minutes more. Add the ground ginger and cook for 1 minute.
  3. Stir in the tomatoes and harissa and cook gently for 5 minutes. Stir in the chicken stock, saffron and some seasoning to taste, then bring to the boil. Return the chicken to the pan, cover and simmer for 25 minutes.
  4. When the chicken is cooked, lift the pieces onto a plate and cover with cling film to keep moist. Turn up the heat and bubble the sauce briskly for about 10 minutes until reduced by about half. Add the honey, simmer for 2 minutes more, then stir in the lemon juice. Taste and season.
  5. Return the chicken to the pan, coat the pieces in the sauce, then cover and simmer for 5 minutes until heated through.
  6. Garnish the chicken with the sesame seeds, almonds, and herbs.

Orange Saffron Cake

Whole oranges are pureed to create this incredibly moist, flourless cake. The orange pulp and saffron imbue this orange saffron cake with amazing flavor and color.

Persian Cranberry Rice Pilaf

Persian Cranberry Rice Pilaf

Persian Cranberry Rice Pilaf

Each year on Thanksgiving Day, my family has a list of "family favorites" that they know will always appear on our dining table—turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, yams, and cranberry sauce are the old standbys that will always be there. But they also know that I will always try one new dish, something fun and unique.

This found this side dish of cranberry rice pilaf on the blog LittleSpiceJar. Basmati rice is seasoned and flavored with ghee (clarified butter), turmeric, saffron, sweet-crunchy pistachios, and (for Thanksgiving) dried cranberries. It's as beautiful as it is flavorful.

Saffron and Vanilla-Infused Honey

Saffron and Vanilla-Infused Honey

Saffron and Vanilla-Infused Honey

Three simple, ancient ingredients—honey, saffron, and vanilla—are blended together to create pantry staple you will use in so many ways. I love to stir this saffron and vanilla-infused honey into a hot cup of tea or stir into some homemade mayonnaise for a unique sweet-salty salad dressing.

© 2018 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 25, 2018:

Lawrence, the color is the same but the flavor is totally different. In fact, turmeric hasn't much taste at all. Saffron is not to be taken lightly. Yes, it is costly, so if you use it, save it for an amazing over-the-top meal for your loved ones.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on November 25, 2018:

Linda

Saffron is actually more expensive than Gold! We've used Tumeric in cooking but never Saffron, though it does sound delicious.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 01, 2018:

Manatita, I thought you already knew that I'm priceless.

manatita44 from london on November 01, 2018:

Alas! No hope for me. I have been gone 45 years and even forgot the proper name. I doubt I can cook it now. We used to cover it with banana leaves.

You are impressive! How much is it to hire your services? :)

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 31, 2018:

Manatita, turmeric mimics the "look" of saffron but has none of the flavors. It is a rhizome (root) in the ginger family. The root is dried and ground up--a much simpler (and hence less-expensive) process.

You piqued my curiosity and I looked up the dish you speak of. I see that some call it "oil down" and I found a recipe on a website for the Government of Grenada. The link is

http://www.gov.gd/articles/grenada_oil_down.html

Thank you for your kind words.

manatita44 from london on October 31, 2018:

I grew up with what we call saffron at home, but it's in fact tumeric. They must be brothers or something, as it gave our food a bright and radiant yellow. I cooked a meal called ' steam down' breadfruit and it was totally awesome.

You present the facts well. Cool!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 31, 2018:

It's crazy expensive (and so we only use a pinch), but knowing how it is harvested, the cost makes sense.

Nell Rose from England on October 31, 2018:

That food looks amazing! I had heard that Saffron was really expensive, or at least it used to be, but knew nothing else about it. Interesting stuff!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 31, 2018:

Peggy, that's good to know. I'll look there. Thank you.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 31, 2018:

Given how saffron is painstakingly harvested, it is no wonder that it is so expensive. We have found it at Costco for sale at better pricing than elsewhere.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 31, 2018:

Thank you Pamela. It is always a pleasure hearing from you. At present I do not have any saffron in my spice cabinet, but I think I need to correct that deficiency.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 31, 2018:

I didn't know saffron had such an interesting history. The pictures you displayed looked so good, and the recipe sounds like it is well worth trying out.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 30, 2018:

Thank you, John. I am really looking forward to your next installment on the cruise, and photos. With your encouragement, I will do that vanilla article, but it might not happen until early next year.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 30, 2018:

Glad I piqued your curiosity into vanilla, Linda. I do hope you include it in a hub. Yes it was my first trip to New Caledonia but may not be my last. I am writing the second instalment of my cruise now and hope to finish today or tomorrow. It will have lots of photos.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 30, 2018:

Rachel, I enjoyed writing this one. But it saddens me that something that gives us so much pleasure comes at such great human expense. Imagine working (under miserable conditions) for 12 hours and being paid (at most) the equivalent of $5.00.

Rachel L Alba from Every Day Cooking and Baking on October 30, 2018:

Hi Linda, I love saffron. I love using it in rice and now I see other ways of using it. Unfortunately it is expensive and hard to find in my area. But when I do see it I buy it. Thanks for sharing the information about saffron and the delicious recipes.

Blessings to you.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 30, 2018:

Linda I am getting frustrated at not getting my notices of hubbers I follow, new hubs. I can't fix HP so I better change my attitude and habits.

See you in a bit.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 30, 2018:

Thank you Eric. Don't forget to look at my new Q&A where I touched briefly on the topic of the act of cooking as therapy.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 30, 2018:

Wow this was great! I loved your beginning, great writing. It carried me away immediately.

It struck me right away that the Myrrh given to baby Jesus was said to be safflower in large part. One of those silly factoids that one cannot prove.

I am off to check at my stores. And let me tell you that the comments to your articles are excellent.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 29, 2018:

Mary, it is indeed a precious spice. Thank you for stopping by.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 29, 2018:

John, I have not looked into the production of vanilla but you have certainly piqued my curiosity. I think I need to add that one to my list of "hubs I need to research and write". Thank you for that.

Was this your first trip to New Caledonia? Perhaps you can share some insights and photos with us?

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 29, 2018:

I love the recipes you included here. I learned so much about saffron from the spice seller in Istanbul who explained to us its uses but especially the best varieties and from which country. It is such a delicate spice.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 29, 2018:

This was very interesting Linda and the recipes look wonderful. I knew a fair bit about saffron already but you added to that. I am just back from visiting Lifou (The Loyalty Islands) in New Caledonia. There they have a vanilla plantation. The guide told us why vanilla is also so expensive as a spice. The production process is incredibly labour intensive and involves so many different aspects just in the drying. From flowering and production of the pods it takes another two years before the vanilla is ready for use.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 29, 2018:

Bill, don't try to harvest saffron from the crocus growing in your flower beds. It is most likely poisonous. Only one very specific crocus will give you saffron spice.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 29, 2018:

Flourish, you can find saffron at your local grocery store on the spice shelf, but don't expect to find more than a few precious threads in an enormous bottle.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 29, 2018:

If I've ever eaten it I was unaware at the time. Right out of the chute I learned something...saffron from crocuses...very cool information!

I'm not adjusting well to the change of weather, my friend. Not happy at all about the rains. :(

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 29, 2018:

I don’t think I’ve had saffron before. The story about how labor intensive it is to harvest is inspiring for the level of care they invest.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on October 29, 2018:

Linda, if I'm not mistaken, I think he said it takes about a year and a half for the first crop to come up. I know he said it takes quite a while.

You could come to Florida anytime. You can meet my cats!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on October 29, 2018:

Shauna, that sounds amazing. I do hope that he's done the research. The critical step is in drying the stigma.

If he shares any with you, I think I'll need to put a trip to Florida in my bucket list.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on October 29, 2018:

Linda, my brother is trying his hand at growing saffron (he lives in South Florida). He's got a whole bed dedicated to it. I hope he's successful; he could really make some good money if it takes off!