The condiment as the world knows it, consists of the dried stigmas of the plant, which grows 15 to 25 cm high.
Saffron grows best in warm sub-tropical climates, which is why it thrives in the Mediterranean countries, particularly Spain, Austria, France, Greece, Turkey and Iran. It is also grown and extensively used in Kashmir and India, where it is cultivated in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarkhand. Spain and Iran are the largest producers, accounting together for more than 80% of the world’s production, which is approximately 300 tons per year.
Why should I be aware about it?
The tiny dried stamens of saffron are available all over the world and are best known for their extraordinary flavoring and coloring properties. Many signature dishes are unthinkable without saffron -- whether it is the Mughlai Biryani, many varieties of Indian sweetmeats, the Spanish Paella, the Italian risotto or some of the fine breads of the Balkans and Scandinavia. Saffron is also a prized ingredient in Ayurveda and is an effective home remedy for many ailments including colds, fever and headaches. Saffron is also used extensively in Tibetan and Chinese medicine.
On the flip side, saffron has a huge environmental cost. It is estimated that it takes about 150,000 flowers to produce one kilogram of pure saffron and to grow this amount one would typically need some 2,000 square meters of land under cultivation per kg harvest. . Also, since it is grown in only a few places around the world, it can not be termed as a local ingredient for most cuisines. So, before buying this expensive and rare condiment, bear in mind the carbon miles it must have taken to travel to one's kitchen shelf.
Saffron also has a huge manpower cost. It is not an easy plant to grow or propagate: its beautiful flowers cannot produce any seeds, and propagation is possible only via corms. Collecting it requires intensive and expert labour, for each saffron flower yields at the most four stigmas, which are then dried to yield the condiment.
All about saffron
The herb of saffron is small, 6 to 10 inches tall and perennial. Root of the herb is in the form of a corm. The herb bears blue or purple flowers that are scented. These flowers which appear usually in the months of October and November in countries like Greece, India, Iran and Spain, have bright red stigmas . The La Macha belt of Spain is the largest producer of Saffron in the world and contributes around 90% of the world saffron production. In Kashmir the cultivation of this spice is confined to Pampore and Kistwar areas. In a good year, each saffron plant might produce several flowers and each flower contain three stigmas(female part of the flower) and two stamens(male part of the flower). There is special technique of picking the flowers and drying the stigmas to obtain saffron. The flowers are individually picked up at dawn (Sahar) and the stigmas and the style are separated from the perianth manually. This saffron obtained from the fresh flowers is regarded to be the first grade or the Shahi saffron .The flowers are dried in the sun for 3 to 5 days. These are then lightly beaten with sticks and passed through coarse sieves. Parts of the flowers that pass through the sieve are put in water. The part that floats in water is discarded and that which settles down is removed and dried. This is second grade or Mogra saffron. The part that remains in the sieve is again beaten and the entire process is repeated once or twice. The saffron subsequently produced is inferior in quality as well as its value. It is termed as the third grade or Lachha saffron.
Saffron is slimy by nature and hot in potency . The taste is pungent and bitter and the after taste is bitter. Chemically , there is presence of colouring agents , stable oil, volatile oil, starch , sugars and water. Also there are glycosides - Crocin and Picrocrocin , crude fiber and ash. The ash contains potassium , phosphorus and traces of boron. Pure saffron is usually pure deep red , with clearly identifiable stigmas.
Saffron and health
According to Ayurveda , saffron is said to be Tridoshara i.e. it is a destroyer of aggravation in all the three body humors viz. air,heat,phlegm.
- Brain Tonic - Saffron is believed to be a boon for the brain as well as the entire nervous system. You could add a pinch of the same to your milk , preferably at bed time. To release aroma ,colour and flavour steep them in hot milk for atleast 20 minutes.A grandmother’s recipe is to add cardamom and almonds to this hot milk . It also relieves tension and depression.
- Diuretic - Being diuretic , saffron tends to cause free passage of urine. It thus finds an important place in treating urinary disorders in which there is diminished flow of urine. At home you can soak it in water at night and the subsequent day take it mixed with honey or sugar.
- Uterine Healer - Saffron tends to cause neutral contractions of the uterus. A number of Ayurvedic preparations containing saffron have been successfully used in treating women ailments like amenorrhoea , dysmenorrhoea and uterine infections. Saffron is also believed to be quite useful in difficult labour and as a uterine purifier after the childbirth.
- Appetizer – It also aids in digestion by increasing the appetite. Saffron is also high in thiamin and riboflavin, minerals which are known to promote a healthy heart.
- Cooling Agent – Saffron is the main ingredient of Thandai , the drink to cool off when the sun gives out scorching heat . Thandai comprises of almonds, fennel seeds, rose water , black peppers and saffron ground together and blended with sugar and chilled milk.
- Regular usage of saffron is effective for Asthma and common colds.
- It works effectively against headaches , when applied as paste to the forehead.
- As a spice it is used internationally for colouring and flavour while giving a distinct aroma and a beautiful golden colour. Saffron pairs marvelously with rice(Zaafrani Pulao) and is an indispensable ingredient in many classical recipes. In India, dishes are decorated with saffron threads , as mark of honour to the guest. It is also used in Saffron Ice creams (Zaafran).
- Saffron is the key ingredient in the manufacture of flavoured chewing tobacco (Zaafrani Zarda) mainly used in India.
- Boon for the skin - Since olden times , saffron has been regarded as highly beneficial for skin. Not only does it add glow to the skin and cure blemishes, it also acts as a blood purifier. The oil of saffron called ‘Kumkumaadi tail’ is used in many fairness creams as the main constituent. Pregnant women are given saffron with milk, in the hope that their unborn infants would acquire a fair and glowing complexion.
Saffron and culture
- One of the first historic references to the use of saffron comes from Ancient Egypt , where it was used by Cleopatra and the Pharaohs as an aromatic and seductive essence, and to make ablutions in temples and sacred places.
- Saffron was also highly appreciated in the Classic Greece for its coloring and aromatic properties. It was used as a remedy to insomnia and to reduce hangovers caused by wine. It was also used to perfume bath water and was considered an aphrodisiac.
- Arabs used saffron in medicine for its anaesthetic properties. It was the Arabs who introduced the cultivation of saffron in Spain in the X century. Evidence of different kinds assure that saffron was an irreplaceable ingredient in the hispanic-arabic cooking of that age.
- During the Middle Age, saffron became well known in Great Britain. The legend says that, in the period of Edward III, a pilgrim brought a bulb of saffron hidden in a hole in his stick from Middle East to the town of Walden. There the bulb was grown and reproduced giving prosperity to the town.
- During the Renaissance, Venice stood out as the most important commercial center for saffron. In that period saffron was worth its weight in gold, and even today it is still the most expensive spice in the world. But sadly its high price led to its adulteration, which then was often severely punished. Henry VIII, who cherished the aroma of saffron, even condemned to death adulterers of saffron.
What can I do about it?
When buying saffron, it might be a good idea to choose the variety that has been grown as close to one's home as possible. It needs to be used sparingly. Since according to Ayurveda, Saffron produces heat in the body, it might be advisable to consume it mostly in cold weather.
Tips for usage and storage
- Saffron should be stored in air tight containers
- Keep it away from bright light and moisture to enable it to retain its properties longer.
- Good quality saffron can be kept for 2-3 years , but poor quality saffron deteriorates rapidly.
- Genuine saffron colour develops only after soaking for few minutes and rubbing with a spoon.
- ↑ MDPI Paper on Saffron