SAFFRON: THE EXPENSIVE SPICE

DR. S. M. ALAM
(feedback@pgeconomist.com)

Feb 20 - 26, 2012

The word saffron derives from the Arab word zafaran, meaning yellow, and it was mentioned as far back as 1500 B.C. in many classical writings as well as in the Bible. Further derivations come from the Old French safran, Medieval Latin safranum, and Middle English safroun.

Saffron is harvested from the fall-flowering plant Crocus sativus, a member of the Iris family. It is native to Asia Minor, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years to be used in medicines, perfumes, dyes and as a wonderful flavoring for foods and beverages. The red-gold threads were also highly prized by pharaohs and kings as an aphrodisiac and yet large amounts produce deathly narcotic effects.

Saffron has been used medicinally to reduce fevers, cramps and enlarged livers, and to calm nerves. It has also been used externally for bruises, rheumatism, and neuralgia.

Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus. Crocus is a genus in the family Iridaceae. Each saffron crocus grows to 20-30 cm (8-12 in) and bears up to four flowers, each with three vivid crimson stigmas, which are each the distal end of a carpel. Together with the styles, or stalks that connect the stigmas to their host plant, the dried stigmas are used mainly in various cuisines as a seasoning and coloring agent.

Saffron, long among the world's most costly spices by weight, is native to Southwest Asia, and was first cultivated in Greece. As a genetically monomorphic clone, it was slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia and was later brought to parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania.

Saffron is well known since the beginning of its production for its healing attributes and its use in gastronomy.

Today, the greatest saffron producing countries are Iran, Greece, Spain, Turkey, India, and Morocco. The largest saffron importers are Germany, Italy, U.S.A., Switzerland, U.K., and France.

The saffron crocus, unknown in the wild, likely descends from Crocus cartwrightianus, which originated in Crete or Central Asia. The saffron crocus is a triploid that is "self-incompatible" and male sterile; it undergoes aberrant meiosis and is hence incapable of independent sexual reproduction-all propagation is by vegetative multiplication via manual "divide-and-set" of a starter clone or by interspecific hybridisation.

Saffron's bitter taste and iodoform- or hay-like fragrance result from the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. It also contains a carotenoid dye, crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles.

Its recorded history is attested in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical treatise compiled under Ashurbanipal and it has been traded and used for over four millennia.

Iran now accounts for approximately 90 per cent of the world production of saffron. Because each flower's stigmas need to be collected by hand and there are only a few per flower, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world.

Saffron, botanical name crocus sativus, is the most expensive spice in the world. Derived from the dried stigmas of the purple saffron crocus, it takes anything from 70,000 to 250,000 flowers to make one pound of saffron.

Moreover, the flowers have to be individually handpicked in the autumn when fully open. Fortunately, only a little needs to be added to a dish to lend it color and aroma; too much makes the food bitter and as the quotation from Culpeper (below) suggests, large quantities of it can be toxic.

The domesticated saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is an autumn-flowering perennial plant unknown in the wild. It is a sterile triploid form, possibly of the eastern Mediterranean autumn-flowering Crocus cartwrightianus, which is also known as wild saffron and originated in Central Asia.

"Triploid" means that three homologous sets of chromosomes compose each specimen's genetic complement; C. sativus bears eight chromosomal bodies per set, making for 24 in total. The saffron crocus likely resulted when C. cartwrightianus was subjected to extensive artificial selection by growers seeking longer stigmas. C. thomasii and C. pallasii are other possible sources.

The plant grows to a height of 20-30 cm (8-12 in), and sprouts 5-11 white and non-photosynthetic leaf known as cataphylls. They are membrane-like structures that cover and protect the crocus's 5-11 true leaves as they bud and develop. The latter are thin, straight, and blade-like green foliage leaves, which are 1-3 mm in diameter.

Varieties: The various saffron crocus cultivars give rise to thread types that are often regionally distributed and characteristically distinct. Varieties from Spain, including the trade names "Spanish Superior" and "Creme", are generally mellower in color, flavor, and aroma; they are graded by government-imposed standards. Italian varieties are slightly more potent than Spanish; the most intense varieties tend to be Iranian. Various "boutique" crops are available from New Zealand, France, Switzerland, England, the United States, and other countries, some of them organically grown. In the U.S., Pennsylvania Dutch saffron-known for its "earthy" notes-is marketed in small quantities.

Consumers may regard certain cultivars as premium quality. The Aquila saffron, or zafferano dell'Aquila, is defined by high safranal and crocin content, distinctive thread shape, unusually pungent aroma, and intense colour; it is grown exclusively on eight hectares in the Navelli Valley of Italy's Abruzzo region, near L'Aquila. It was first introduced to Italy by a Dominican monk from Inquisition-era Spain. But, the biggest saffron cultivation in Italy is in San Gavino Monreale, Sardinia, where it is grown on 40 hectares, representing 60 per cent of Italian production; it too has unusully high crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal content.

Another is the "Mongra" or "Lacha" saffron of Kashmir (Crocus sativus 'Cashmirianus'), which is among the most difficult for consumers to obtain. Repeated droughts, blights, and crop failures in the Indian-controlled areas of Kashmir combine with an Indian export ban to contribute to its prohibitive overseas prices. Kashmiri saffron is recognizable by its dark maroon-purple hue; it hints at strong flavor and aroma effect.

Trade: Almost all saffron grows in a belt bounded by the Mediterranean in the west and the rugged region encompassing Iran and disputed Kashmir in the east. The other continents, except Antarctica, produce smaller amounts. Some 300t (300,000 kg) of dried whole threads and powder are gleaned yearly of which 50t (50,000 kg) is top-grade coupe saffron.

Iran answers for around 90-93 per cent of global production and exports much of it. A few of Iran's drier eastern and southeastern provinces, including Fars, Kerman, and those in the Khorasan region, glean the bulk of modern global production.

In 2005, the second-ranked Greece produced 5.7t (5,700.0 kg), while Morocco and Kashmir, tied for third rank, each produced 2.3t (2,300.0 kg). Nevertheless, Iranian crop yields and profit margins on a per-acre basis are relatively low; margins in Spain, followed by Greece and Italy are far higher.

In recent years, Afghan cultivation has risen; in restive Kashmir, it has declined. Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Italy are, in decreasing order, low producers. Prohibitively high labor costs and abundant Iranian imports mean that only select locales continue the tedious harvest in Austria, England, Germany, and Switzerland-among them the Swiss village of Mund, whose annual output is a few kilograms. Tasmania, China, Egypt, France, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Turkey (mainly around the town of Safranbolu), California, and Central Africa are microscale cultivators. To glean an amount of dry saffron weighing 1 lb (450g) is to harvest 50,000-75,000 flowers, the equivalent of an association football field's area of cultivation; 110,000-170,000 flowers or two football fields are needed to gross one kilogram.

Forty hours of labor are needed to pick 150,000 flowers. Stigmas are dried quickly upon extraction and (preferably) sealed in airtight containers.

Saffron prices at wholesale and retail rates range from US$500 to $5,000 per pound, or $1,100-11,000/kg, equivalent to 2,500 per pound or 5,500 per kilogram.

The price in Canada recently rose to CAD18,000 per kilogram. In Western countries, the average retail price is $1,000/500 per pound, or $2,200/1,100 per kilogram. A pound contains between 70,000 and 200,000 threads. Vivid crimson coloring, slight moistness, elasticity, and lack of broken-off thread debris are all traits of fresh saffron.

Benefits of Saffron: Saffron is basically a flowering plant which is widely used as a culinary spice. It is also used in herbal supplements due to its varied health benefits. Right from treating depression, asthma, atherosclerosis and stressful menstrual cycles, saffron's benefits extend to even treating cancer and helping to lower bad cholesterol levels. Saffron is in fact an expensive spice made from the saffron crocus flower. Research indicates that a few compounds in saffron do promote anti-cancer activity. It also helps in stimulating the secretion of stomach acids, which supposedly assist in the contraction of muscles, for instance, as in the uterus.

Reddish golden in color, saffron is used basically as a seasoning agent in cooking and also as a coloring agent. In fact, saffron is one of nature's highly powerful herbs.

From time immemorial, saffron is known to have helped relieve stomachaches and kidney stones. It also improves circulation of blood. A vital herb with multiple benefits, it is believed that in ancient days, grand moms used to mix a few sprigs of saffron in hot milk as a nightcap for their grand children, to induce sound sleep and good health.

It has been scientifically proven that saffron contains carotenoids, which play a vital role in inhibiting skin tumors, improving vision and relieving aches and pains of arthritic conditions. It's been proven after a recent trial that this aromatic golden herb may prove instrumental in preventing loss of vision in the elderly. This is a proven fact in scientific circles that saffron helps to regain vision in the instances of cataract.

Saffron contains a compound by the name "crocin" which is helpful in promoting learning, memory retention and recall capacity to a great extent. Several studies have shown encouraging results that saffron might be great in the treatment and management of age related mental impairment. Saffron contains certain active constituents, which are known to produce positive effects in patients suffering from neuro degenerative disorders. In case of soreness or inflammation of the mouth and tongue, try massaging gums with saffron. Discomfort is relieved almost immediately.

Medical studies over the years have proven beyond doubt that this golden herb enhances oxygen diffusivity in plasma and other liquids. It also improves pulmonary oxygenation. High levels of bad cholesterol and triglycerides can be lowered by including saffron as a dietary intake, or as an herbal supplement. For those suffering from conditions of acute dryness of skin, application of saffron cream typically on affected areas will help relieve the symptoms.

In combination with other herbs, saffron is also reputed to be a good remedy for insomnia, coughing, indigestion, and even baldness.

Saffron Uses: 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 sweet. Saffron also contributes a luminous yellow-orange coloring to foods. Saffron is widely used in European, Arab, Indian, Persian, and Turkish cuisines.

Confectioneries and liquors also often include saffron. Common saffron substitutes include safflower, annatto, and turmeric. Saffron has also been used as a fabric dye, particularly in China and India, and in perfumery. It is used for religious purposes in India, and widely used in cooking in many ethnic cuisines: these range, for example, from the Milanese risotto of Italy or the bouillabaisse of France to Biryani with various meat accompaniments in South Asia.

Saffron has a long medicinal history as part of traditional healing; several modern research studies have hinted that the spice has possible anticarcinogenic (cancer-suppressing), anti-mutagenic (mutation-preventing), immunomodulating, and antioxidant-like properties. A 1995 study suggested that saffron stigmas, and even petals, have been said to be helpful for depression. Early studies show that saffron may protect the eyes from the direct effects of bright light and retinal stress apart from slowing down macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.

Most saffron-related research refers to the stigmas, but this is often not made explicit in research papers. Other controlled research studies have indicated that saffron may have many potential medicinal properties.

Saffron spice has been used in a variety of ways for thousands of years. Saffron has always been one of the most widely utilized and also most expensive spices in the World and saffron spice remains the same today.

The high price is mainly due to the huge amount of saffron crocuses needed to produce just an ounce of pure saffron and in addition to this there is the intensive hand harvesting and sorting methods needed to prepare the spice.

The diverse uses of saffron spices include using saffron in medicine. Saffron is used as herb in both Unani medicine and Ayurveda.

In India, saffron spice is used to treat diseases such as diabetes, arthritis of the joints, infertility, and also a wide range of other ailments. In addition to India, Tibetan and Chinese medicine also finds wide variety of uses for saffron spice. Indians regard Kashmiri saffron above all other kinds of saffron available from around the World and in fact in India the spice saffron is held in such high regard that it is deemed a demonstration of respect to a person if saffron is served in the food that a guest is served.