It’s not hard to see why saffron is the world’s most expensive spice by weight. The delicate, red-orange threads are the hand-picked and dried stigmas of a flower, Crocus sativus, which only blooms for a couple of weeks in autumn. It takes up to 170,000 blossoms (each with three stigmas) to make a kilogram of saffron.
Luckily for the cook’s budget, just a few threads of good saffron (from the Arabic word zafaran, meaning “yellow”) will impart a gorgeous golden hue and what connoisseurs describe as a metallic honey, grassy or hay-like taste to dishes, ranging from plain rice to bouillabaisse.
Saffron is native to the Mediterranean, and references to its use as a seasoning, dye, perfume or curative date back four millennia. Greek mythology says that when the nymph Smilax spurned the advances of handsome mortal Crocos, he was transformed into the stunning purple flower, its fiery stigmas representing his undying love. Cleopatra is claimed to have put saffron in her warm baths, and the Romans used it to perfume public buildings. Most of the world’s saffron is now grown in Iran, though Kashmir is considered to grow the best. It’s also cultivated in Spain, Greece, India, Turkey, Morocco and China, and stars in a range of Indian, Persian, European, Arab and Turkish cuisines.
Saffron threads are available from supermarkets, but try specialty delis and providores where the quality is likely to be best. Crush the strands gently and soak for 15 minutes or so in a little warm to hot (not boiling) water before using them – this helps distribute the colour evenly and extracts the most flavour, even if you’re adding it to an already wet dish. Add both liquid and threads to the dish and use sparingly, as too much can make a dish bitter.
Use saffron in ...
bouillabaisse, paella, pilau, risotto Milanese, Cornish saffron buns, chicken korma, saffron kulfi, savoury custard, sauces, rice-based desserts, cakes, sweets and tea.
Saffron goes with ...
fish, chicken, rice, honey, dried fruits, tomato, onion, garlic, bread, parsley, pasta, lemon, orange, egg, cream, ice-cream, nuts, cardamom.