Saffron has fascinated me since I was a child.
I remember regarding the little vial with wonder. These curious looking orange threads worth more than gold? It seemed incredible to me.
Last week when I cooked a prawn risotto with saffron, I showed the Big Sister the vial of saffron and explained why it was so special. I recognised the same wonder in her eyes and watched as she marvelled at how so few threads flavoured and coloured our dinner.
Then she asked the inevitable question "why is saffron so expensive?"
I knew the basics but I wanted a clearer understanding so I did some research. It turns out growing saffron is like having a very high-maintenance girlfriend.
Here are five reasons why saffron is so expensive and why growing saffron is like having a high-maintenance girlfriend:
1. Saffron makes you work for it. Saffron is the dried stigma (female flower parts) of the purple crocus flower (Crocus sativus). Each flower has just three stigmas, so it takes loads of flowers to produce saffron in commercial quantities. To give you a ride of how low production levels are, it takes two football fields of crocus flowers to harvest a kilo of saffron. Too big to picture? A 100mg glass vial contains the stigmas of twenty crocus flowers.
2. Saffron demands attention. Producing Saffron is a ridiculously labour intensive process. The stigmas must be picked by hand, then sorted and graded by hand. You can't automate such a delicate process, so saffron production relies on people power. It takes forty hours of labour to pick the stigmas from 150,000 crocus flowers.
3. Saffron doesn't like to wait. Not only do the stigmas need to be picked by hand, they need to be picked between dawn and 10am on the day of opening to ensure premium colour and aroma.
4. Saffron is not easily pleased. Crocus flowers won't grow just any where. They don't like to be hot. They don't like to be wet. They don't like particularly rich soils. They don't like south facing aspects. In short, it's picky.
5. Saffron isn't very weighty. Saffron is a featherweight - it takes 165,000 filaments (the harvest of 56,000 flowers) to produce a single kilo of saffron threads.
There's one other reason why saffron is like having a high-maintenace girlfriend: there are loads of cheap imitations. Because saffron is so expensive it begs to be adulterated. Products marketed as saffron powder can be a blend of food colouring and saffron or even dried marigold petals. To be sure you're getting the real deal buy the stigma or saffron threads.
have you cooked with saffron?
ever had a high-maintenance girlfriend?