Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), a species of crocus in the family Iridaceae.
The crocus flower has three stigmas, which are the distal ends of the plant's carpels. Together with its style, the stalk connecting the stigmas to the rest of the plant, these components are often dried and used in cooking as a seasoning and colouring agent. Saffron, which has for decades been the world's most expensive spice by weight, is native in the Middle East. It is widely used in the cuisine of Iran. Saffron is characterised by a bitter taste and an iodoform- or hay-like fragrance; these are caused by the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. It also contains a carotenoid dye, crocin, that gives food a rich golden-yellow hue. These traits make saffron a much-sought ingredient in many foods worldwide. Saffron also has medicinal applications.
The history of saffron cultivation reaches back more than 3,000 years. The wild precursor of domesticated saffron crocus was Crocus cartwrightianus. Human cultivators bred wild specimens by selecting for unusually long stigmas. Thus, a sterile mutant form of C. cartwrightianus, C. sativus, emerged in late Bronze Age Crete. Experts believe saffron was first documented in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical reference compiled under Ashurbanipal. Since then, documentation of saffron's use over the span of 4,000 years in the treatment of some 90 illnesses has been uncovered. Saffron has been used as a spice and medicine in the Mediterranean region since then, with usage and cultivation slowly spreading to other parts of Eurasia as well as North Africa and North America. In the last several decades, saffron cultivation has spread to Oceania.
Trade and Use
Saffron's aroma is often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste has also been noted as hay-like and somewhat bitter. Saffron also contributes a luminous yellow-orange colouring to foods. Saffron is widely used in Iranian (Persian), Arab, Central Asian, European, Indian, Armenian, Moroccan and Cornish cuisines. Confectionaries and liquors also often include saffron. Common saffron substitutes include safflower (Carthamus tinctorius, which is often sold as "Portuguese saffron" or "assafroa") and turmeric (Curcuma longa). Medicinally, saffron has a long history as part of traditional healing; modern medicine has also discovered saffron as having anticarcinogenic (cancer-suppressing), anti-mutagenic (mutation-preventing), immunomodulating, and antioxidant-like properties. Saffron has also been used as a fabric dye, particularly in China and India, and in perfumery.
Most saffron is grown in a belt of land ranging from the Mediterranean in the west to Kashmir in the east. Annually, around 300 tonnes of saffron are produced worldwide. Iran ranks first in the world production of saffron, with more than 81 percent of the world yield. Iran's annual saffron production is expected to hit 300 tons by the end of the nation's Fourth Five-Year Socioeconomic Development Plan in 2009. Other minor producers of saffron are Spain, India, Greece, Bulgaria, Morocco, and Italy. A pound of dry saffron (0.45 kg) requires 50,000–75,000 flowers, the equivalent of a football field's area of cultivation. Some forty hours of frenetic day-and-night labour are needed to pick 150,000 flowers. Upon extraction, stigmas are dried quickly and (preferably) sealed in airtight containers. Saffron prices at wholesale and retail rates range from US$500/pound to US$5,000/pound (US$1100–US$11,000 per kilogram), equivalent to £250/€350 per pound or £5,500/€7,500 per kilo. In Western countries, the average retail price is $1,000/£500/€700 per pound (US$2200/£1100/€1550 per kilogram). A pound comprises between 70,000 and 200,000 threads. Vivid crimson colouring, slight moistness, elasticity, recent harvest date, and lack of broken-off thread debris are all traits of fresh saffron.