Terri on Saffron

Picture if you will, a field full of crocus…es. Crocii? Crocus flowers.

Now, imagine each one of those flowers has three red stamens, and they are fragrant and pungent and delicious.

Imagine if you don’t harvest those stamens the day the crocus blooms, they will wither and die. And because they stamens are so delicate, they have to be harvested by hand or they could be destroyed.

Imagine it takes 225,000 stamens—or 75,000 flowers—to create one pound of product.

You have just imagined what it takes to harvest saffron, and perhaps have come to a right understanding as to why it costs about $10,000 a pound. The bad news is…seriously, it costs $10,000 a pound. The good news is, a little goes a long way.

Saffron was first cultivated in Iran, or Crete, or possibly, India, or Greece in hummina-hummina BCE; the first depiction of saffron in use in Greece is in Bronze Age work, which dates from 3300-1200 BCE. Saffron was reportedly used by Cleopatra in her bathwater, both for its color (she liked the golden sheen) and for its smell (I love the smell of a $1200 bath in the morning). She would use a quarter cup of it. In the bath. Then again, she was Queen of Egypt.

Most of the time, saffron measurements in recipes are stated in things like “a pinch”, or “three or four threads”, or “1/8 teaspoon”, which still makes anything with saffron slightly more spendy than most other dishes, but decidedly less than $1200. According to aficionados, there’s nothing like it in the world, so the pleasure of saffron is worth the luxe expense. It has been described as many things—musky, herbal, sweet, heady—which culminate in something mysterious and difficult to describe but uniquely glorious. That gloried image is only helped by the way it imparts a golden color to recipes fortunate enough to benefit from the saffron pinch. From dinners to desserts, saffron brings a pungent, heady scent that carries the flavor through your nose, across your palate, and straight to your heart.

That’s not all it does, though. Crocin, one of the primary compounds in saffron, has powerful antioxidant properties which boosts overall cellular health and can help maintain metabolism. Research also indicates that saffron (or saffron extract) taken orally for 6-12 weeks can be an effective antidepressant, perhaps as effective as low-dose prescription drugs. Other compounds have been used to treat PMS and improve memory and learning ability. Not to be outdone by its stamens, a compound in the petal of the actual crocus is being studied for its effectiveness in treating cancer. It’s a plant that keeps on giving.

So yes, it’s expensive. But it is also an unparalleled gift from the earth with benefits that go far beyond the flavor it brings to the table. Try it, and see how you like it. All it takes is a pinch!

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