Good As Gold

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and a treasured ingredient in dishes from Spain to India.

October 01, 2003|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff

In the plains of La Mancha, Spain, the quest for gold is about to begin. In the next few weeks, workers will go out into the fields to pluck the blossoms from the fall crocus. Inside each blossom is the treasure -- three thin yellow-orange threads that make the most expensive spice in the world -- saffron.

Since ancient times, cooks have experienced the allure of the spice that turns dishes golden-yellow and imparts a pungent flavor no other spice can duplicate. Recipes may allow cooks to substitute turmeric or safflower, but those spices cannot imitate saffron's distinctive flavor.

"Saffron is in a class all by itself," says Steve Logan, corporate chef at McCormick & Co. in Hunt Valley.

So prized is the spice that at the Baltimore International College, it is kept under lock and key, and carefully doled out as recipes require.

Saffron is also closely guarded at McCormick & Co.'s packaging plant, where it arrives from Spain in colorful tin boxes. About once a month, three or four workers sit at a table wearing surgical gloves and take the saffron threads pinch by pinch from the tins and weigh them on digital scales before packaging. Precisely 0.06 ounces is placed in a cellophane envelope, which then goes in a white envelope before it is sealed into a bottle that sells for about $14.

Fortunately, a little saffron goes a long way. Just a few strands, about a 1/4 teaspoon, is all that is needed to flavor most dishes. And the spice lasts a long time -- up to four years if kept in a cool, dark place, Logan says.

Saffron's aroma has been described as like that of aged wood or honey. Its flavor is earthy, slightly bitter. The spice is perhaps most commonly used in rice, stews and soups. It flavors Middle Eastern tagines, French bouillabaisse and Italian risotto. It is essential for authentic Spanish paella.

The British, who grew saffron for a time in the Cornwall area, bake it into breads. In India, saffron is used in dishes for weddings and other occasions, says restaurateur Tony Chemmanoor, who is so in love with saffron that he named his new Baltimore restaurant after the spice. "It's a beautiful name," he says.

Thousands of years ago, people of the eastern Mediterranean region discovered that the dried stigma of the fall crocus could impart a beautiful color and distinct flavor to their dishes. Its use spread throughout the Middle East, Asia and Europe, which is why Chemmanoor said he chose the name for his restaurant, which serves foods with Indian, European and Asian influences.

"This element is one of the main ingredients of foods from all over the world," he says.

Saffron is grown in Iran, India, Italy and Brazil. Even some home gardeners in the United States grow the fall crocus.

But Spain is the largest commercial producer of the spice. Some historians say the Phoenicians brought saffron to Spain. Other sources say it was brought by the Arabs. (The word saffron comes from the Arabic word for yellow.)

However it arrived, the best saffron in the world is reputed to come from Spain. "The Spanish saffron gives a bit more vibrant color," Chemmanoor says.

The Spanish harvest takes two weeks in late autumn, and the labor that is required to gather the delicate flowers and remove their stigmas accounts for its expense. No machinery has been devised to do the tedious job, so workers pluck the flowers of the small, purple crocus and then remove the red stigma from the blossom's interior by hand. It takes about 75,000 flowers to produce a pound of saffron.

Last year, 27,000 pounds of saffron valued at $4.8 million was imported into the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. By comparison, 110 million pounds of black pepper valued at $77 million was imported.

Unfortunately, the price of saffron has helped create a market for unscrupulous dealers. Since early times, traders have tried to fool buyers with turmeric, marigold and safflower. Many reputable spice dealers, such as McCormick and Vann's Spices, sell the whole threads rather than the crushed saffron.

"The powdered is not as strong, and you don't know the quality you're getting," said Dara Bunjon, who works in Vann's sales and marketing department.

Logan advises cooks to be suspicious if the spice appears more yellow than red. "When you open it up, you'll see the red-orange stigmas," he said. "Then you'll notice the pungent aroma. It is very, very fragrant."

Recipes often call for steeping the saffron in a hot liquid or crushing it between the fingers to release its oils. It is usually added at the start of cooking to give time for its flavor and color to infuse the dish.

And while saffron is perhaps most often used to flavor rice, poultry and seafood dishes, it can also be used with fruit. At the Saffron restaurant, the spice flavors a chilled mango soup; tops a fruit drink containing guava, mango and pomegranate juice; and is whisked into a brulee.

"Saffron," says Chemmanoor, "is the queen of spices."

Creme Brulee de Saffron

Serves 6

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