The saffron spice comes from the dried stigmas of the “crocus sativus” flower.
Extremely fragile, the spice is harvested from these flowers at dawn, before the rays from the sun reach them and alter the quality of the flower.
A delicate hand is necessary, in order to remove the red stigmas from the flower.
The stigmas are dried in order to prevent them from going mouldy. It can take up to 200 flowers just to produce 1 gram of saffron. This may explain its nickname: red gold.
The high price (more than $1 per gram) of saffron is offset by the small quantities that are often required in recipes: one small pinch is usually enough to add flavour to a whole dish and will give it a nice golden colour.
Saffron is mostly used in Arabian, Indian, Iranian and Central Asian cooking. It can be added to a variety of dishes, including cheese plates, candy, liqueurs, soups and meat-based dishes. It is also an essential ingredient in Spanish paëlla, as well as in Italian risotto “alla milanese”.
A small warning when buying saffron: don’t buy the cheap stuff. Like everything that is revered and expensive, there are knock-offs. If you buy cheaply priced saffron, you risk paying for something that is only similar to saffron in colour and nothing else.
Originally published in the Journal de Montréal on August 1, 2009.