Saffron spice — Flavour and Striking Colour

The name saffron comes from the Arabic saffron (بالعربية: زعفران), which means yellow – a sacred colour chosen by Buddhist monks for their robes. Saffron is hugely expensive: consider that 200,000 flowers have to he harvested by hand to obtain 450 g/l lb saffron and no further explanation for cost is necessary.

Saffron has been highly prized as a dye, medication and culinary spice since Greek and Roman times. One of the more extravagant Roman Emperors, Heliogabalus, is said to have bathed in saffron scented water. Arab traders introduced saffron to Spain, where its richness of colour and flavour were appreciated, then rapidly assimilated in the cuisines all along the Mediterranean.

From there saffron spread to Britain, where it was extensively grown in Essex, with the town of Saffron Walden as a centre for cultivation. Early British saffron growers were known as crokers. Buy true saffron in fine, bright orange-red ragged strands for preference, as they arc less likely to have been adulterated. Look out for tell tale light patches on the strands. Ready ground (powdered) saffron is also a candidate for adulteration, so buy from a reputable source.

Culinary use of saffron

Appreciated for its delicate, yet distinctive, flavour and striking colour, saffron is added to special dishes in many cuisines. Celebration pilaus from India are scented with saffron, as are rice dishes from the Mediterranean, particularly Spanish paella and Italian risotto Milanese. Bouillabaisse, the famous seafood soup-stew, is flavoured with saffron.

This spice is also widely used in sweet recipes: milky rice or vermicelli puddings and sweet custard-like desserts from India. Baked goods flavoured with saffron include yeasted breads as well as cakes. It is one of the ingredients in the liqueur Chartreuse.

Preparation tip:

Saffron strands can be infused in a little warm water or milk until the colour of the liquid is even. Add the liquid and strands to the dish, usually towards the. end of the cooking process.

The powder can be added direct to food without soaking.

Aroma, flavour, substitutes and cultivation of saffron

Aroma and flavour of saffron

Saffron has a distinctive and lasting aroma with a certain warmth. Use saffron sparingly to avoid a medicinal flavour.

The spice is so expensive that cheating is quite common.

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Cultivation of saffron

The Crocus sativus is a bulbous, autumn-flowering, perennial of the iris family. The flowers have three bright, orange-red stigmas which are the true saffron.

These arc toasted, or dried, in sieves over a very low heat. Nowadays, the very best saffron comes from Valencia or La Mancha in Spain; however, it is grown also in Greece, Turkey, Iran, Morocco and Kashmir.

Substitutes for saffron

There are a number of substitutes for saffron: in India turmeric is often referred to as saffron. Turmeric does not have the fine flavour or bright colour of true saffron.

Safflower, known as Mexican or bastard saffron, is another saffron look-alike: the same comments apply, it can be used but does not compare well with the real thing.

BOTANICAL NAME: Crocua sativus

FAMILY NAME: hidacea


  • French: safran
  • German: Safran
  • Spanish: azafrán
  • Italian: zafferano

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