--- Watch Ainsley Harriott cook up a Spanish chicken with saffron potatoes on Ainsley's Mediterranean Cookbook, 8.30pm Sundays on SBS Food or stream it on SBS On Demand ---
Saffron is a very particular spice. It takes around 150 crocus flowers (crocus sativus) to produce a single gram.
The plant flowers for just six weeks of the year, from the end of March through April in Australia.
Each flower has to be handpicked and processed to extract a single triploid (or three-pronged) stigma.
Oh, it's also best to pick the stigmas mid-morning, on a sunny day when the flowers are fully opened. The stigmas are immediately dried to lose 90 percent of their moisture to achieve a category one quality rating.
"We hand process 220,000 stigmas to produce each kilo of this precious spice," Nicky Noonan, co-owner of Australia's biggest saffron producer, Tas-Saff tells SBS Food. With the cost of labour high in Australia, it's no surprise that much of Australia's saffron supply is imported from countries like Iran, India, Spain and Afghanistan.
"Our hourly rate in Australia can be up to 15 times what it costs to produce overseas," says Nicky. So, while there's an Australian saffron industry, particularly in Tasmania, "of course imported saffron will always remain heavily relied upon."
Worth the price
The labour intensive nature of producing saffron means Australian saffron will set you back around $50-60 for a single gram, which is around four times the price of imported saffron and roughly the same price as gold. The surprising thing is, there's still not a lot of money in growing saffron in Australia.
"We hand process 220,000 stigmas to produce each kilo of this precious spice." - Nicky Noonan
Despite seeming high, the current price of Australian saffron means growers aren't making money. "The price for Australian-grown saffron has remained stable for the past 20 years," says Nicky. It's not a large industry, but the stagnant price is still forcing many of the smaller producers out of the market.
"We liked saffron and wanted to grow things we like," explains Lisa Britzman, co-owner Campo de Flori, a boutique farm in Tasmania's Huon Valley which produces culinary lavender and olive oil, as well as saffron. "But we’ve decided not to grow saffron commercially anymore because we just can’t sell it. We’ll keep selling it from our farm gate shop or online, but otherwise we’ve pared it back."
Despite the commercial difficulties with growing the spice, it's definitely worth seeking out Australian saffron for quality, colour and flavour.
"There is always a percentage of customers who try to always buy Australian where possible," says Nicky. "These people would be aware of the origin of their saffron."
"Australian saffron is much higher quality," agrees Lisa. "You use far less to get better flavour."
The flavour of saffron is complex, and has been described as everything from "earthy" to "floral" to "airy" to "sweet". That's pretty much covering the four elements in one spice. If your saffron tastes in any way bitter or metallic, you're probably tasting an inferior version or even something else entirely.
Remember the 'golden' rule when buying saffron: the darker the colour, the richer the flavour.
"It's not unheard of for marigold stamen to be sold as saffron," says Lisa. "The industry is not as regulated as people would like."
Other "poor man's" substitutes include safflower (which is known as "Mexican saffron") and even turmeric, but neither spice can produce the complex flavour and depth of saffron itself. Remember the 'golden' rule when buying saffron is the darker the colour, the richer the flavour.
Enriching many products
To encourage more people to venture out of the supermarket (where generally only cheaper, imported saffron is stocked) and try Australian-grown and produced saffron, growers are getting creative. Campo de Flori's genius marketing strategy is to sell saffron in a reusable preserving jar alongside recipes they've specially developed to showcase the flavour of the spice. "That way people know exactly how to use saffron to create something special," says Lisa.
At Tas-Saff they're producing handcrafted small-batch gin and vodkas (presumably to make liquid gold!) under their Growers Own Distillery banner. Their award-winning saffron gin is particularly popular, with saffron working beautifully to balance juniper's piney tartness. You can also try Tas-Saff's saffron tea, which is marketed as a herbal tea and medicinal aid.
Unleash the healing power
In fact, saffron has actually been used by cultures such as the Greeks for centuries to do everything from enhance libido, boost low mood and enhance memory. Growing clinical evidence supports these ancient practices, generally finding that saffron supplementation is a pathway to good health.
A clinical trial by the University of Sydney's Save Sight Institute found that saffron supplementation modestly improved visual functioning in age-related macular degeneration.
Saffron has actually been used by cultures such as the Greeks for centuries to do everything from enhance libido, boost low mood and enhance memory.
If that's not enough, trials have also discovered what the ancient Greeks knew all along: saffron has a positive effect on erectile dysfunction.
That steep price tag is looking more and more like a bargain...
No wait, it's still all about the food
Using saffron as a medicinal aid is all well and good, but what about the food?
This crispy-bottomed Persian rice recipe is an excellent place to start your maiden saffron voyage.
That said, saffron turns up in food from every corner of the globe. Renowned dishes in French, Moroccan, Pakistani, Spanish, Lebanese, Portuguese, Italian, Sri Lankan, African and even Dutch and Mexican cuisines all use this precious spice for colour, flavour and unreplaceable depth.
This Italian classic is all about mellow flavours and perfectly cooked rice.
Bouillabaisse originated in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille. A fish stew, the origin of its name is the Provençal Occitan word bolhabaissa – from bolhir (to boil) and abaissar (to simmer).
Kulfi, a traditional Indian ice-cream, takes hours to make. This is my great shortcut, using condensed milk and cream to create sweet creamy ice-blocks with lovely flavour.
Rice with a golden crust (‘tah digh’) is one of the signature dishes of Persian cooking. It can have many different ingredients, but I love the simplicity of this dish with the crimson of the barberries against the gold of the crust, which makes any rice dish special.
This rich and flaky Moroccan pie, called b'stilla, is a showstopper. It pairs saffron- and spice-scented chicken with sweetened, ground almonds inside crispy filo dough.
The best thing about Moroccan and North African cooking is that balance between sweet, sour and spice and this dish covers all those bases. #RecipeForLife
The beautiful colour of the saffron creates a golden glow in this exotic drink.
Sipping black coffee with a honeyed sohan caramel is my first grown-up memory of flavour. My mother used to make these from a recipe given to her by a Persian lady who lived in Lahore. The chewy caramel with saffron gracing each bite is made even more distinctive by the crunch of nuts. In Pakistan, we also have multani sohan, a halva made with sprouted wheat, which is said to have links to this Persian one. To me, this version is more pleasurable as the sticky sweetness remains long after that first bite.
Shrikand is a fantastic amalgam of thick creamy yoghurt, musky saffron, aromatic green cardamoms and nuts for texture.
Saffron is said to have landed in Sweden during the 1300s, thanks to trade with Asia. Its consumption was reserved for feasts and holidays, when it appeared in sweet cakes, breads and buns. Yeasted saffron cakes are still popular in the region, particularly on December 13th, when Saint Lucia's Day is celebrated. This cake, either the whole or in part, freezes well.