Once I saw a video about saffron harvesting that made me appreciate much more this particular spice as well as the people producing it.
Saffron has a unique taste and aroma that is used not only to season but also to color food, with a luminous yellow-orange hue. Apart from cooking, it has been used as a dye, medicine and in perfumery.
It’s derived from the blossoms of the Crocus sativus flower, commonly known as Saffron crocus. The plant grows in moderate climates, characterised by dry-hot summers and cool-wet winters, mainly around the Mediterranean basin and further east up to Iran and Kashmir in India. Today the vast majority of saffron is produced in Iran, followed with much smaller productions by Spain, Greece, Morocco, India, Italy.
Harvesting occurs during a few weeks’ time starting late October each year. Flower picking is made by hand and has to be done quickly at dawn and before the sun has risen. At that time the blossoms are still closed, protecting the dark-red threads, known as stigmas, from the sunlight.
The whole process is labor intensive and requires manpower of well-trained workers. After collection, the three stigmas of each flower are separated by hand and let to dry under optimal conditions. Dried stigmas are then sold as such or after being ground into a fine powder. Because of the demanding cultivation, harvesting and processing methods, saffron is the most expensive spice worldwide.
Consider for instance that as many as 450 stigmas (coming from 150 saffron flowers) are required for 1g of dried saffron, which could cost up to 10-30 euros if of high quality, exceeding sometimes even the price of gold.
However, its aroma is very intense and only a few stigmas are enough to season a portion of a dish, constituting thus saffron a relatively affordable product for occasional use.
Wild saffron has been used since the ancient years. Characteristic depictions can be found on frescos of Minoan palaces on the Greek islands of Crete and Santorini dating back to 1600-1500 BC. Saffron crocus was observed, selected and domesticated on Crete during the Late Bronze Age (1). Since then and although its huge farming and economic importance, its origin has been always a mystery and a subject for big debates.
From a genetic point of view, Saffron crocus is a triploid plant, having three sets of chromosomes, rather than two, inside its cells. Triploid organisms are normally sterile and can be propagated only vegetatively by using daughter corms (a bulb-like, underground storage organ of the plant). Because of this type of asexual reproduction, all modern saffron plants are genetically identical and there is no room for improving quality by crossing different cultivars. Identification of the original plant species would enable farmers to explore new genotypes and introduce genetic diversity as to broaden the multiplicity of the Saffron crocus.
Recently, two independent laboratories in Germany provided concrete data that not only named the original crocus species from which the modern saffron plant evolved but additionally pinpointed the region of its evolution.
Biologists from Dresden Technical University studied several candidate crocus species by performing comprehensive genomic sequencing analyses as well as comparative chromosome studies and published their results under the title: ‘Adding color to a century-old enigma: multi-color chromosome identification unravels the autotriploid nature of saffron (Crocus sativus) as a hybrid of wild Crocus cartwrightianus cytotypes’ (2).
After comparing the genetic signatures of the different crocus species, the scientists concluded that the modern saffron plant is descended from a single species, namely from wild Crocus cartwrightianus. They also proposed a mechanism of evolution that is based on the fusion of genomes from two individual Crocus cartwrightianus cytotypes with slight chromosomal differences. This fusion gave rise to an autotriploid species that is the modern Saffron crocus.
Simultaneously, a group from the Leibniz Institute of Plant and Crop Plant Research presented evidence that further supported that idea. The results were published under the title: ‘Saffron (Crocus sativus) is an autotriploid that evolved in Attica (Greece) from wild Crocus cartwrightianus’ (3).
The researchers took samples of all relevant crocus species from native grounds and thoroughly analysed chloroplast genomes and genome-wide DNA polymorphisms. They recognised wild Crocus cartwrightianus from Greece and particularly from the region south of Athens as the closest genetic match to modern Saffron crocus. They assumed that sometime between 1600 BC and 350 BC a triploid C. cartwrightianus cytotype originated in that region was selected by humans because of its remarkably strong aroma, stability and the ability to maintain those valuable properties through time and generations.
The triploidy state might have induced also an ecological niche to different climates and this could explain, as suggested by the scientists, why today Saffron crocus is found outside the distribution area of C. cartwrightianus and at drier regions with higher elevations.
Saffron in the kitchen
Saffron is typically used in rice dishes. Well-known examples are the risotto Milanese and the Spanish paella. Additionally, it can be used in soups, sauces, stews and also in sweet preparations, like rice puddings or the Indian Rasmalai.
It’s very important to choose saffron of high quality. As a rule of thumb, the deeper the red color, the better the quality. Before buying look the threads and notice the presence of the orange tips. This indicates saffron that hasn’t been dyed.
Good quality saffron is sold in small amounts, typically of 1g, in certified boxes, and should cost not less than 5-10 euros per gram. If cheaper and sold in bigger bags, also looking slightly yellow and not dark-red indicates bad quality or fake.
Prefer to buy whole threads rather than ground saffron. Sometimes the latter can be contaminated with other ingredients, like pollen from other flowers.
Don’t use more than five threads per dish portion. Too much saffron intensifies a lot the dish, covers other tastes and brings a bitter note that is unpleasant.
Use saffron by soaking the threads in warm (not hot) water or cooking broth/liquid for 10-20 minutes to release flavor and color. Add then this liquid to the recipe, preferably towards the end of cooking.
Don’t use wooden utensils because wood absorbs saffron.
You can obtain more intense color in your dish if you just freshly grind the threads and use the powder for cooking.
1) Negbi M. Saffron cultivation: past, present and future prospects. In: Negbi M (Ed.) Saffron: Crocus sativus L. Harwood Acad. Publ., Amsterdam, pp. 1-17
2) Schmidt T, Heitkam T, Liedtke S, Schubert V, Menzel G. New Phytologist (2019) doi: 10.1111/nph.15715
3) Nemati Z, Harpke D, Gemicioglu A, Kerndorff H, Blattner FR. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 136 (2019):14-20