Taxonomy of the Saffron (Crocus sativus L. 1753) according to Cronquist System
Superkingdom or Domain: Eucaryotae Whittaker et Margulis, 1978
Kingdom: Plantae Haeckel, 1866
Subkingdom: Tracheobionta or Cormobionta (Vascular plants)
Superdivisio/Superdivision: Spermatophyta (Seed plants)
Division: Magnoliophyta Cronquist, 1996 (Flower plants)
Class: Liliopsida Brongn., 1843 (Monocotyledons)
Subclass: Liliidae J.H. Schaffn., 1911
Superorder: Lilianae Takht., 1967
Order: Asparagales Bromhead, 1838
Family: Iridaceae A.L. de Jussieu, 1789
Subfamily: Crocoideae Burnett, 1835
Tribe: Croceae Dumort., 1829
Subtribe: Crocinae Benth. & Hook.f., 1883
Genus: Crocus L. (1753)
Species: Crocus sativus L. (1753)
Taxonomy of the Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) according to APG II System
Kingdom: Plantae Haeckel, 1866
Cladus: Angiospermae J. Lindl., 1830 or Magnoliophyta Cronquist, Takht. & W. Zimm., 1966
Cladus: Unassigned monocots
Order: Asparagales Bromhead, 1838
Family: Iridaceae A.L. de Jussieu, 1789
Subfamily: Crocoideae Burnett, 1835
Tribe: Croceae Dumort., 1829
Subtribe: Crocinae Benth. & Hook.f., 1883
Genus: Crocus L. (1753)
Species: Crocus sativus L. (1753)
A sinonymus of Crocus sativus L. is Crocus officinalis Honck., 1792
The common names are: in american "Spanish Saffron"; in Arabic "za'faran", "Krûkû" Kurkum"; in Assamese "Jafran"; in Bengali "Jafran", "Keshar"; in Chinese "Zang hong hua", "Fan hong hua"; in French for "Safran"; in Spanish "Azafrán"; in Portuguese "açafrão"; in German "Safran"; in Finnish "Sahrami"; in Danish "Saffran"; in Japanese "Safuran."
Economic importance, origin and diffusion
Saffron, which one uses the stigmas is the top of the stylus, known since antiquity as a medicinal drug and as a flavoring and coloring matter. He lost importance as a plant for dyeing the poor stability of the colors that they get, but has retained its high value for many pharmaceutical applications, in the preparation of liquor, pasta, cosmetic, to color butter and cheese especially as a condiment for its taste (bitter) and flavor.
Unfortunately, the high cost of saffron encourages the use of other natural dyes.
Believed to have originated in Western Asia, saffron is spontaneous in the Mediterranean basin, where it would spread in Southern Europe. Currently the crop is practiced in the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, France, Greece, Iran, Turkey, India and China. In Italy cultivation of saffron was introduced in the first half of 1400 by a Dominican monk from Spain and spread especially in the province of L'Aquila, where, carefully improved, it has become a major source of wealth for the area, reaching, in 1830, the maximum extension of about 450 ha of crops with a production of dried stigmas of 4.5 t. This was followed by a favorable period up to 1900, with the conquest of the Italian and foreign markets; then there was, however, a continuous sharp decline, which was more pronounced in the last two decades for various reasons such as the massive reduction in population occurred in the area, the occurrence of diseases, the deterioration of product quality, low income obtainable from the culture the competition from substitutes, fraud on the market. The area is currently invested approximately 3 ha, almost all of the plain of Navelli in the province of L'Aquila, with a production of about 50 kg/year, obtained by fields of small extension, generally less than 1,000 m2 . One can see, however, some possibility of revival of culture through initiatives aimed at the protection and promotion of the product, at least for domestic and herbal as well as natural colorant non-toxic alternative, therefore, many synthetic dyes. The decline in the culture, however, forcing our country to costly imports (4.9 billion pounds on average in the period 1978-80), while abroad increases the interest in this Iridacea. In Europe, between the producing nations, it appears that Spain where they were planted about 4,400 hectares, or more than 50% of the area destined to medicinal plants.
Iran produces over 90% of saffron globally, followed by Greece, Morocco and Kashmir.
Botanical characters, biology and physiology
The organic form is G-corm (perennial herbaceous plant with underground corms).
Flowering period is IX-XI .
The chorological type is W-Asiat..
The development can take place at an altitude (min / max) 0/0 m
The saffron crocus is a low-growing perennial plant and bulbous, with corms spherical depressed (3-4 cm in diameter and 1.5-2.0 cm in height). Its somewhat globular corm (bulb), produces six to nine radical, grass-like, channelled, elongated, sessile, narrowly linear leaves, surroudend in the lower region by four or five membranous whitish scales. (Figure 1 and Figure 2). The plant is propagated by the daughter corms formed on the mother corm (Figure 3). The systematics of autumn flowering Crocus has been discussed by various Authors, and, as regards nomenclature, it is agreed that the key provided by Maw, G., 1886 (A monograph of the genus Crocus with an appendix on the etymology of the words Crocus and Saffron. London. 326 pp.) continues to be the best available fro differentiating teh various species of Crocus.The terminal flowers (Figure 4), which appear in autumn (mid October-early November), are borne enclosed in a spathe singly or in twos or threes. These are lily-lyke and about 25 mm across. The perianth is light violet, reddish purple,or mauve coloured, forming a cylindrical tube 7-8 cm long; the androecium is of three stamens; the gyneecium in 3 carpellary and 3-locular; placentation is axile; the ovary is inferior and the single, slender elongated, pale yellow style branches above into three brilliant orange-red stigmas, 25-30 mm long, rolled lengthwise to form a funnel-shaped structure. The three stigmas, along with an approximately 50 mm portion of the style, constitute, in the dry state, the pure saffron of commerce.
Microscopic examination reveals that each stigma has the shape of e slender funnel, the edge of whichis dentate owing papillae (projections ofepidermal cells). Powdered saffron is dark orange-red. the powder imparts a yellow colour to water or chloral hydrate solution. Clerrly visible in the powder, under microscope examination, are elongated parenchyma cells; spiral vessels; smooth,sphaerical, thick-walled pollen grain up to 100 µ in diameter; and the fingher-like papillae of the stigmas (Figure 4 and Figure 5). The cultivated saffron crocus is copletely sterile because the stigmas are not allowed to fulfill their organic function. It has been shown to be a triploid (2n=24) with a very irregular meiosis,which also accounts for the sterility.
Figure 1 - Pictures of plants of Crocus sativus.
Figure 2 - Plant in flowering.
Figure 3 - Corms with roots.
Figure 4 - Flower with showy orange stigmas.
Figure 5 - Stigmas from which it is extract the spice saffron.
Saffron is native to the Mediterranean environment, characterised by cool to cold winters, with autumn-winterspring rainfall, and warm dry summers with very little rainfall. It can withstand substantial frosts (-10 °C), and can tolerate occasional snow in the winter. In New Zealand, saffron will grow well where there is winter chilling and warm dry summers. These are areas south of the Waikato in the North Island and on the east of the South Island. Saffron produced poorly in the Waikato but very well in Central Otago.
In Greece, saffron growing areas have more than 500 mm annual rainfall while in Spain saffron is grown in dry temperate conditions with an annual rainfall of around
400 mm per annum, but the crop is usually irrigated.
Saffron is grown successfully under non-irrigated conditions (1,000-1,500 mm per annum) in Kashmir, India. Spring rain is considered favourable for corm production, while rain immediately before flowering encourages high flower yield. However, rain or cold weather during flowering spoils the saffron and persistent wetness and high temperatures encourage disease.
Saffron likes light, friable soils that have a high nutrient content. It grows in a wide range of soils, but thrives best in deep, well drained clay-calcareous soils with a loose texture that permits easy root penetration.
In New Zealand, the best soils for saffron production are those with a sandy or loamy texture, but the most important requirement is well drained soil. Under nonirrigated conditions, high levels of organic matter improve
soil texture and water holding capacity, encouraging high yields. Saffron beds can be irrigated during the spring and early autumn, with approximately 300-400 mm of water applied.
Needs and Requirements
Requires adequate availability of water only in the spring, when the corms are growing, and early autumn to anthesis; during the summer is resistant to drought and excess heat thanks precisely to its vegetative inactivity. In contrast rains too frequent in autumn do damage to flowering. Are unfavorable, then, foggy and humid climates. Against low temperatures, then, the plant manifested considerable resistance under snow cover or if protected by a layer of earth slight, but fears the sudden frosts. Even with respect to the ground dell'iridacea needs are modest, with slight preference for the type, limestone, especially deep and healthy.
The duration of the culture is 2-3 years, until the multiplication of the corms does not happen too in the surface. Important condition to maintain an affordable level of production is that the return on the same soils takes place only after a long interval of several years, no less than 3-4.
In rotation saffron follows a hoeing plants or a pasture and precedes the wheat; on the upland of L'Aquila alternates well with forage legumes. In any case, the site of the culture must undergo deep processing and accurate, as well as a complete fertilizer, organic and mineral, without excess nitrogen that can be harmful to bloom.
The planting is done in the summer with corms removed from cultures of 2-3 years, selected from among those of medium size, healthy and cleansed by the outer coats.
The corms are placed, with the tip pointing upwards, almost in contact between them, in deep furrows 10-15 cm. The grooves are formed over long prose or flower beds 80 cm wide, slightly elevated (10-15 cm) and punctuated by paths passing through. In L'Aquila, in recent times, the number of furrows for flowerbed was reduced from 4 to 2 in order to avoid harmful stagnation of water and the width of the paths has been expanded from 40 cm to 60-80 cm for the passage of mechanical means.
The germination takes place in September with the release of 2-3 stems surrounded by a sheath whitish emergency leave free a group of leaves, narrow, 15-20 cm long. In October, advanced, among the leaves, the flowers appear in purple-pink, of tubular form, which opens in a few hours, making it appear the stigmas of the typical red color. The bloom lasts until mid-November, although the full flowering, in general, has a duration of 10 days.
The culture may have a duration of one year or only 2-3 years. To prevent weed competition and reduce pest attacks can be convenient the annual cycle.
Flower yield is highly dependent on corm density and corm size. Traditionally, saffron is grown on raised beds to allow good drainage and easy access for picking.
Corms are planted out during their dormant period in summer. In Italy, where annual planting is practised, the best yields for flower and corm production are obtained by leaving a space of 2-3 cm between each corm in the furrow, with a planting depth of 10-20 cm. Optimal corm quantity per hectare is 13-15 tons, which is about 600-700 thousand corms with an average weight of 20-22 g each (45-48 corms/kg). In Morocco they use 2 x 2 raised beds with rows 20 cm apart. Bunches of two or three corms are planted 10-15 cm apart within rows.
There the planting depth is about 15 cm and about 3 tons of corms are used per hectare. In Greece, corms are planted in furrows formed with a plough, with corms placedabout 12 cm apart along the row and about 15 cm deep.
The distance between the rows is about 25 cm. This is about 230 000250 000 corms per hectare. In India, corms are planted 7.5-10 cm apart, in rows15-20 cm apart. Double rows are often used in Spain with a spacing of 3.0 cm between rows and 6.0 cm between corms in a row.
Recommended planting depths for corms vary from 7.5-10 cm to 15-22 cm. In Italy, a planting depth of 15 cm gave better yields than shallower or deeper planting.
Planting depth affects corm production; more buds sprout from shallow planted corms than from deep planted ones, resulting in more daughter corms.
Corm size has a significant effect on the production of daughter corms and on the production of flowers and the yield of saffron. The larger the mother corm, the more daughter corms will be produced in the annual cycle, which increases the potential for higher yields in subsequent years. Our research shows each original mother corm, above 30 g, produced an average of six new corms (in the second year), while the mother itself decayed. In the third year, the total mean corm number had risen to 22 new corms from each original mother corm, while in the fourth year that total had risen to 65.
The weight of corms produced is also affected by the weight of the original mother corm. When the original mother corm is above 30 g, the total weight of replacement corms doubles in the second season, is 10 times heavier than the original in year three, and in year four is about 16 times heavier.
New saffron corms also grow above the old ones each season, so they creep towards the soil surface by 1-2 cm each year. Therefore, the crop needs to be lifted and replanted periodically. This occurs about every 4 years in Spain, but fields may last up to 12 years or more under non-irrigated conditions in Kashmir. Replanting is normally done when yields begin to fall due to overcrowding or damage to corms that are too close to the soil surface.
At Clyde (New Zeland)), large corms were planted at least 10 cm deep, while smaller corms were planted at 7-8 cm. We grew our saffron in beds with four or five rows, each 20 cm apart. Corms were planted 10 cm apart in the row.
This gives a final density of 50 corms/m2. To guard against possible fungal or bacterial diseases before planting, the corms were dipped for 5 minutes in a solution of 20 g Benlate® and 10 g Captan® mixed in 10 litres of water.
In traditional saffron culture, large amounts of farm yard manure were applied to the saffron fields before planting, and typically 20-30 tons per hectare are
incorporated during cultivation. This material supplies nutrients, but its other major role is to improve soil
moisture holding capacity and structure under nonirrigated conditions. Under traditional growing systems
no further fertiliser was applied after corm planting.
However, recent data suggest that at least some annual fertiliser applications are beneficial and a base dressing of 80 kg P/ha and 30 kg K/ha followed by a split application
of 20 kg N/ha in autumn and again immediately after flowering is recommended.
We have incorporated meat and bone meal into the soil before planting (at 0.2 kg/m2), and each year we applied a compound fertiliser (N:P:K:S 12:5:14:4) in the spring (at 30 g/m2).
Normally, we did not use herbicides on the crop while it was actively growing. Sawdust mulch helped reduce weed problems. During the dormant phase, when the tops died off, if you actually need, we used the herbicides Glyphosate to clean up the beds prior to the new seasons flowering and growth. The choice of chemical depended on the weeds present. The old top growth, which dies in the summer, needs to be raked off the beds prior to the autumn flowering.
Saffron flowers in the autumn, about 40 days after planting, and continues for 30-40 days, depending on the weather. The flowering period of each plant may last up to 15 days. Rain 10-15 days before flower picking results in excellent flowering and high production, whereas under drought conditions, small flowers with small stigmas can
be expected. A cold period or a late planting can retard flowering.
Our experience shows that corms produce leaves approximately one month before flowering starts.
Corm size has a large effect on the production of flowers per corm. Large corms (>45 g) can produce up to 12 flowers per corm, while more average sized corms (20-30 g) produce six flowers per corm.
Harvesting and storage
Harvesting is done at dawn, for 2-3 hours, for a period of about 15 days. The flowers are still closed and freed as soon as the white spathe that surrounds them, are posted and displayed in a basket (Figure 6). Immediately follows the removal of the stigmas (Figure 7), which are then dried in within sieves of cloth with the heat radiated from the embers of coal. From this last operation (roasting), repeated for several days, depend largely on the quality and preservation of the product.
Flowers are usually picked daily in the morning after the dew has evaporated but before flowers wither. The flower is cut at the base of the flower stem with a slight twisting movement or by cutting with the finger nail. Care is taken not to damage the leaves. In Greece, flowers are harvested all day, as demanded by flowering. In Italy, flowers are picked early in the morning while the flower is still closed. It is considered that the flower is quicker to pick in this state, and that it is quicker to remove the stigma.
The Yields are strongly influenced by environment and cultural methods, e.g. irrigation. In Morocco, the average yield varies from 2 to 2.5 kg/ha, where 1 kg of intact flowers yields 72 g of fresh stigmas or 12 g of dried stigmas. In Italy, the average yield is 10-16 kg/ha of saffron; in Spain 6-29 kg/ha; in Greece 4-7 kg/ha; in India 2-7 kg/ha. The average weight of fresh stigmas is 0.03 g per flower and dry weight is 0.007 g per flower. About 150 flowers are needed to obtain 1 g of dry stigmas.
The size of individual stigmas and the amount of style collected influence the total yield and quality of saffron.
Between 70,000 and 200,000 flowers (0.3-1 g each) are needed to produce 1 kg of saffron. The flowers weighed between 0.3 and 1 g, with fresh stigma per flower weighing 0.01-0.1 g and dry stigma <0.01 g.
In Greece, 3 kg/ha of saffron was expected in the first year, 10 kg/ha in year 2, 15 kg/ha for years 3 and 4, and 10 kg/ha for years 5 and 6 (one gram of saffron/m2 will yield 10 kg/ha of saffron.).
Figure 6 - Flowers of Crocus sativus collected in basket.
Figure 7 - stigmas disconnected from the flowers to be dried.
Following the separation of the stigmas from the flowers, it is essential to dry the flower heads immediately.
Flowers generally appear in October (slightly later in the first year) and last for a month. Two methods of harvesting are possible.
If one only has a small number of flowers, one can leave the flower and just extract the 3 red filaments from the pistil with some tweezers. This operation is called trimming.
In the case of large quantities of flowers, one should pick the flowers as soon as they have bloomed and then extract the red pistils comfortably sitting around a table.
To trim, one can use one's nails or small tools like scissors or tweezers. Trimming the flowers must be done soon after they are harvested to make the task easier.
The yellow stamens and purple petals have no use.
Figure 8 - Trimming method of flower harvesting of Crocus sativus.
Drying experiments show that drying at temperatures up to 110oC can be used. The critical issue is the length of drying time (e.g. at 110oC for 2 minutes). Recent Spanish research shows drying in a hot air flow at 70 °C for 6 minutes will give quality saffron. Brightness of colour is aided by quick high temperature drying. Slow drying gives a poor quality product. Another method is to use a dehydrator at 48oC for 3 hours. Irrespective of the drying method, it is important not to over dry. A final dry matter close to 10% moisture is adequate for long-term storage.
The average production of dried stigmas is 10 kg/ha, with the lowest values in the first year, higher in subsequent years. To make 1 kg of dried stigmas are needed 115,000-120,000 flowers. From the culture are obtained also the leaves, flaked in the spring, which constitute an excellent fodder, as well as 0.35 to 0.40 t/ha of corms.
The types on the market are classified according to origin: Saffron of L'Aquila (Italy), Spain, France, With different characteristics (brightness, color, odour, length and strength of the filaments).
Ethereal oil, composed primarily of sufranale, ossisafranale, pirane, naphthalene and cineole, are due to biological, dietary and therapeutic saffron.
The main pigments are: crocetin, carotene, lycopene and zeaxanthin. The picrocrocin is the bitter substance.
Precautions and control
Precautions against predators: wood mice and voles are particularly fond of corms in winter as well as in summer. Destroying their tunnels regularly allows one to limit their number.
Rabbits, in the countries where they are harmful which are particularly keen on leaves and flowers can only be stopped with a secure fence.
Disease control: three fungal infections can harm saffron:
All these diseases resist most fungicides, however, they mainly appear from the third or fourth years. Consequently, one should dig up corms and replant them in another field. It is better not to use the same field again for 10 years.
- Rhizoctonia crocorum (Pers., 1801) De Candolle, 1815 that causes brown ulceration and damping-off.
- Violet root rot produces a damp rot caused by Rhizoctonia solani Tulasnei. Its own teleomorph is Helicobasidium purpureum Pat. [synamorph, Helicobasidium brebissonii (Desm.) Donk] a Basidiomycotina, Auriculariales, Auriculariaceae. It is highly contagious; illness also called "mort du safran" (saffron's death). This pathogen produces sclerotia, that, in the saffron are formed in contact with the shriveling bulb and also in the adjacent soil.
- Fusarium corm rot of saffron, incited by Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. gladioli, causes severe yield losses in Italy. Major symptoms during flowering (OctoberNovember) include yellowing and wilting of shoots, basal stem rot and corm rot. Sixty-four isolates of Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. gladioli, obtained from infected saffron crops located in Italy (Abruzzi, Tuscany and Umbria) and in Spain, were characterized by pathogenicity and vegetative compatibility. Chlorate-resistant, nitrate-nonutilizing (nit) mutants were used to determine vegetative compatibility among the isolates of the pathogen with the aim of examining the genetic relatedness among populations from different locations. All the isolates belonged to vegetative compatibility group 0340. Since saffron shares susceptibility to Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. gladioli with other ornamental plants of the Iridaceae (Crocus, Gladiolus, Iris and Ixia), it is likely that a clone of the pathogen (VCG 0340) was introduced with other hosts and is responsible for the disease outbreak observed on saffron in Italy. Alternatively, or additionally, the clone of Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. gladioli causing disease on saffron in other countries may have spread to the saffron fields in Italy through the import and dispersal of infested propagation material.
The quality of saffron is dependent on its colouring power (crocin concentration), odour (safranal) and taste (picrocrocin).
The best quality saffron has a high safranal content. Saffron is dry, glossy and greasy to the touch when freshly dried, turning dull and brittle with age. It is easily bleached if not stored in the dark, and also stores better under conditions of low temperature and low relative humidity.
An International Standard for saffron is available (ISO 3632-1:1993). Saffron in filaments is classified into four categories based on the content of floral waste and extraneous matter, with category 1 (extra) having a maximum of 0.5% floral waste and 0.1% extraneous matter. Category 1 has the highest bitterness (as expressed in the absorbance test for picrocrocine), and the highest colouring test (as expressed in the absorbance test for crocine). Safranal levels, also based on an absorbance test, have a range for all grade categories.
The chemistry of saffron has been investigated in detail. The major pigment, a water-soluble carotenoid giving saffron its value as a dye, is crocin, a yellow-red pigment found at levels of up to 2%. Picrocrocin (<4%) is a bitter-tasting principle that hydrolyses to glucose and safranal (<4%), on drying.
Saffron is used sparingly, but it is also important to note it is toxic and fatalities have been recorded from consuming as little as 1.5 g of pure saffron.
Market and Modern trade
At a price of $2,000 to $10,000 a pound, saffron is far and away the most expensive food on earth, way more than truffles, caviar, and real balsamic vinegar. Its history is epic; its flavor is revered. International organizations employ lab equipment to fuss over grading crops for flavor, color, and richness. And its longstanding coveted status has borne a tradition of adulteration, embargo, and conspicuous consumption that can only be characterized as grotesque.
First, an explanation of its price. Saffron threads are the stamens of the crocus, a high-maintenance flower whose climatory pickiness is matched only by its fickle yields. Each flower, which blooms for one week of the year, produces about three stamens which must be picked by hand (with the greatest delicacy, of course) and dried (delicately again!). 150 flowers and substantial labor are needed to produce a single gram of saffron; it's only as affordable as it is because harvesters aren't paid much at all. There are less expensive varieties available, but real saffron has a high base rate of expense that its price just can't sink below.
When purchased in small quantities from reliable sources, saffron is definitely worth it. Beyond its luxe cachée is a flavor difficult to describe but profoundly delicious. It plays well with an impressive range of ingredients, and even when it doesn't dominate a dish, its flavor and distinct aroma elevate its surrounding flavors into something ethereal. The key is learning how to source it so you don't break the bank or get ripped off.
First things first, beware of bunk saffron. Saffron will always be expensive; if you see a packet of a couple ounces for a few dollars, just put it back. The image on the right is what real saffron looks like. The threads are fine and even in size, with a thin yellow tendril on one end and a trumpet-like flute on the other. Compare that to some fraudulent saffron on the left: coarse, irregular threads, tiny shreds of something almost bark-like. The yellow bits aren't even connected to the red threads, a sure sign of fraud. The fake stuff often smells like bark with some chemical additives thrown in (basically what it is); real saffron will tickle your nose even through a layer of plastic.
Your major purchasing decision will be country of origin. When I can find Iranian saffron, that's my top choice. The color is a deeper red and spice's telltale musk (a fantastic corrective to its sweet perfume) is more pronounced. But these saffrons are difficult to find for reasons of embargo, difficulty in cultivation, and local bans on export for the international market. The next step down (though only the nitpickiest would call it a downgrade) is Spanish saffron, which is high quality, relatively available, and strictly regulated.
Spanish saffron is divided into grades. Names to look for are coupe, superior, La Mancha, or Rio. Coupe is the top of the line: it has the least flavorless yellow stem and the highest amount of crocin, one of the key essential oils in saffron. If you can't find coupe grade (or don't want to shell out the money for it), those other grades are more affordable and still high quality. Pick your grade by the saffron's final destination. If you're using it as a mélange of spices to glow in the background, a lower grade will do you fine. But for dishes where it's the star, such as risotto Milanese, go for the best you can get (though those lower grades will still taste great).
Never buy ground saffron. Far too often it's cut with turmeric, paprika, and the aforementioned bark. Even if it's from a spice merchant you trust, saffron powder loses its flavor faster than whole threads. If you have the option to buy a small sample of saffron threads, drop them in some warm water in a small bowl. In a minute or two the water should be a bright, clean yellow, and the threads should retain their shape. If the water is murky or the threads fray, it's a sign of adulteration.
After taking pains to get some saffron, what can you do with it? The most classic use is rice dishes: risottos, pilafs, and paellas. A small pinch adds brilliant color, aroma, and flavor against bland grains. Desserts are another go-to, and saffron can tread anywhere vanilla does, such as custards and cookies. (The flavor profiles of the two are similar: sweet, heady, and musky.) Saffron takes best to light meat and vegetables, such as poultry, cauliflower, and onions. Combine those in a quick braise with saffron, cinnamon, cumin, and almonds and you have a North African-esque dish that tastes like it took way more time than it did.
For general cooking, it's best to add saffron early on in cooking so its flavor can infuse into the other ingredients. If there's water already in the pan, just crumble in the threads. Otherwise soak them in a tablespoon of water for ten minutes before adding to the pan.
If you want saffron's delicate flavor to really come to the fore, keep the other flavors and seasonings to a minimum. But I most enjoy saffron as a supporting player, less for its flavor than for the depth of flavor it gives a whole dish. A small pinch in a large pot of food makes a substantial change its character: The flavor is richer, fuller, and much more aromatic. My favorite saffron dishes are humble affairs with simple ingredients and spices, like plov, an Uzbek rice pilaf studded with carrots and onions. The saffron adds a hint of luxury and some sophisticated sweetness.
Whether you dress it up or down, saffron's worth getting to know. The quality stuff is easier to find than ever, and if you purchase by the gram or the ounce, it's an affordable luxury that'll pay for itself over and over.
Almost all saffron grows in a belt bounded by the balmy Mediterranean in the west and mountainous Kashmir in the east. All other continents except Antarctica produce smaller amounts. In 1991, Some 300 t (300,000 kg) of whole threads and powder are gleaned yearly, of which 50 t (50,000 kg) is top-grade "coupe" saffron. Iran is by far the world's most important producer: in 2005 it grossed some 230 tonnes (230,000 kg) of dry threads, or 93.7 percent of the year's global total mass; much of the Iranian crop was bound for export. In the same year, second-ranked Greece produced 5.7 t (5,700.0 kg). Morocco and the disputed region of Kashmir, tied as the next-highest producers, each produced 2.3 t (2,300.0 kg). In decreasing order, Iran, Greece, Morocco, the Kashmir region, Azerbaijan, Spain, and Italy dominate the world harvest.
In Iran, the world's leading producer, the erstwhile and northeasterly Khorasan Province, which in 2004 was divided in three, grows 95 percent of Iranian saffron: the hinterlands of Birjand, Ghayen, Ferdows in South Khorasan Province, along with areas abutting Gonabad and Torbat-e Heydarieh in Razavi Khorasan Province, are its key cropping areas. Afghanistan has resumed cultivation in recent years; in restive Kashmir it has waned. Despite numerous cultivation efforts in such countries as Austria, England, Germany, and Switzerland, only select locales continue the harvest in northern and central Europe. Among these is the small Swiss village of Mund, in the Valais canton, whose annual saffron output amounts to several kilograms. Microscale cultivation occurs in Tasmania, China, Egypt, France, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Turkey (especially Safranbolu), California, and Central Africa (Figure ).
Figure 9 - Producing regions, producing nations (major and minor) and trading centres (present and past) of Crocus sativus.
The high cost of saffron is due to the difficulty of manually extracting large numbers of minute stigmas, which are the only part of the crocus with the desired aroma and flavour. An exorbitant number of flowers need to be processed in order to yield marketable amounts of saffron. Obtaining 1 lb (0.45 kg) of dry saffron requires the harvesting of some 50,000 flowers, the equivalent of an association football pitch's area of cultivation, or roughly 7,140 m2 (0.714 ha).
By another estimate some 75,000 flowers are needed to produce one pound of dry saffron. This too depends on the typical stigma size of each saffron cultivar. Another complication arises in the flowers' simultaneous and transient blooming. Since so many crocus flowers are needed to yield even derisory quantities of dry saffron, the harvest can be a frenetic affair entailing about forty hours of intense labour. In Kashmir, the thousands of growers must work continuously in relays over the span of one or two weeks throughout both day and night.
Once extracted, the stigmas must be dried quickly, lest decomposition or mould ruin the batch's marketability. The traditional method of drying involves spreading the fresh stigmas over screens of fine mesh, which are then baked over hot coals or wood or in oven-heated rooms where temperatures reach 3035 °C (8695 °F) for 1012 hours. Afterwards the dried spice is preferably sealed in airtight glass containers.
Bulk quantities of lower-grade saffron can reach upwards of US$ 500 per pound; retail costs for small amounts may exceed ten times that rate. In Western countries the average retail price is approximately US$ 1,000 per pound. Prices vary widely elsewhere, but on average tend to be lower. The high price is somewhat offset by the small quantities needed in kitchens: a few grams at most in medicinal use and a few strands, at most, in culinary applications; there are between 70,000 and 200,000 strands in a pound.
Experienced saffron buyers often have rules of thumb when deliberating on their purchases. They may look for threads exhibiting a vivid crimson colouring, slight moistness, and elasticity. They reject threads displaying the telltale dull brick-red colouringindicative of old stockand broken-off debris collected at the container's bottom, indicative of age-related brittle dryness. Such aged samples are most likely encountered around the main June harvest season, when retailers attempt to clear out the previous season's old inventory and make room for the new season's crop. Buyers recommend that only the current season's threads be used. Reputable saffron wholesalers and retailers will indicate the year of harvest or the two years that bracket the harvest date; a late 2002 harvest would thus be shown as "2002/2003".
Saffron features in European, North African, and Asian cuisines. Its aroma is described by taste experts as resembling that of honey, with woody, hay-like, and earthy notes; according to another such assessment, it tastes of hay, but only with bitter hints. Because it imparts a luminous yellow-orange hue, it is used worldwide in everything from cheeses, confectioneries, and liquors to baked goods, curries, meat dishes, and soups. In past eras, many dishes called for prohibitively copious amountshardly for taste, but to parade their wealth.
Because of its high cost saffron was often replaced by or diluted with safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) or turmeric (Curcuma longa) in cuisine. Both mimic saffron's colour well, but have distinctive flavours. Saffron is used in the confectionery and liquor industries; this is its most common use in Italy.
Chartreuse, izarra, and strega are types of alcoholic beverages that rely on saffron to provide a flourish of colour and flavour. The savvy often crumble and pre-soak saffron threads for several minutes prior to adding them to their dishes. They may toss threads into water or sherry and leave them to soak for approximately ten minutes. This process extracts the threads' colour and flavour into the liquid phase; powdered saffron does not require this step.
The soaking solution is then added to the hot cooking dish, allowing even colour and flavour distribution, which is critical in preparing baked goods or thick sauces.
Threads are a popular condiment for rice in Spain and Iran, India and Pakistan, and other countries. Two examples of such saffron rice (Figure 10) is the zarzuela fish-seafood stew and paella valenciana (Figure 11), a piquant rice-meat preparation. It is essential in making the French bouillabaisse, which is a spicy fish stew from Marseilles, and the Italian risotto alla milanese. The saffron bun has Swedish and Cornish variants and in Swedish (Figure 12) is known as lussekatt (literally "Lucy cat", after Saint Lucy) or lussebulle. The latter is a rich yeast dough bun that is enhanced with saffron, along with cinnamon or nutmeg and currants. They are typically eaten during Advent, and especially on Saint Lucy's Day. In England, the saffron "revel buns" were traditionally baked for anniversary feasts (revels) or for church dedications. In the West of Cornwall, large saffron "tea treat buns" signify Methodist Sunday School outings and activities.
Moroccans use saffron in their tajine-prepared dishes, including kefta (meatballs with tomato), mqualli (a citron-chicken dish), and mrouzia (succulent lamb dressed with plums and almonds). Saffron is key in the chermoula herb mixture that flavours many Moroccan dishes. Uzbeks use it in a special rice-based offering known as "wedding plov". Saffron is also essential in chelow kabab, the Iranian national dish. The use of saffron in south Indian cuisine is perhaps best characterised by the eponymous Kesari bhath - a semolina based dessert from Karnataka. South Asian cuisines also use saffron in biryanis, which are spicy rice-vegetable dishes. (An example is the Pakki variety of Hyderabadi biryani.) Saffron spices subcontinental beef and chicken entrees and goes into many sweets, particularly in Muslim and Rajasthani fare. Modern technology has added another delicacy to the list: saffron ice cream. Regional milk-based sweets feature it, among them gulab jamun, kulfi, double ka meetha, and "saffron lassi"; the last is a sweet yogurt-based Jodhpuri drink that is culturally symbolic.
Figure 10 - Saffron rice made with bouillon cubes and saffron.
Figure 11 - Saffron is one of three key ingredients in paella valenciana.
Figure 12 - A Swedish-style saffron bun traditionally consumed before Christmas.
In conclusion, saffron has been a key seasoning, fragrance, dye, and medicine for over three millennia. One of the world's most expensive spices by weight, saffron consists of stigmas plucked from the vegetatively propagated and sterile Crocus sativus, known popularly as the saffron crocus. The resulting dried "threads" are distinguished by their bitter taste, hay-like fragrance, and slight metallic notes. The saffron crocus is unknown in the wild; its most likely precursor, Crocus cartwrightianus, originated in Crete or Central Asia.
From antiquity to modern times the history of saffron is full of applications in food, drink, and traditional herbal medicine: from Africa and Asia to Europe and the Americas the brilliant red threads wereand areprized in baking, curries, and liquor. It coloured textiles and other items and often helped confer the social standing of political elites and religious adepts. Ancient peoples believed saffron could be used to treat stomach upsets, bubonic plague, and smallpox.
Saffron crocus cultivation has long centred on a broad belt of Eurasia bounded by the Mediterranean Sea in the southwest to India and China in the northeast. The major producers of antiquityIran, Spain, India, and Greececontinue to dominate the world trade. It was also successfully grown in Saffron Walden, UK. The cultivation of saffron in the Americas was begun by members of the Schwenkfelder Church in Pennsylvania. In recent decades cultivation has spread to New Zealand, Tasmania, and California. Iran has accounted for around 9093 percent of recent annual world production and thereby dominates the export market on a by-quantity basis.
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Fiume Francesco 2005