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Saffron ... real or fake?

Of course, everything that is expensive and valuable attracts forgery, and the plant world is no exception. If you don’t know better, you could end up buying fake saffron instead of the real thing.

Read on and see for yourself.

The world’s most expensive spice

Saffron has been called “red gold,” just as oil is known as “black gold.” It is worth ten times more than vanilla, and is sometimes as costly as gold itself! One kilo of saffron goes for $800 to $1,600. Saffron comes from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). It takes about 150,000 flowers, or 300 kg of flowers reduced to 5 kg of fresh stigmas, to obtain 1 kg of dried saffron. The annual global production of saffron is 60 to 80 tonnes, mainly from Spain (30 to 40 t), India (15 to 20 t) and Iran (10 to 15 t). (All these figures vary considerably depending on the source consulted.)

Cultivated saffron is still picked by hand, despite attempts at mechanization. Every saffron crocus corm (a sort of bulb) generally produces five flowers, which come into bloom over the space of two weeks.

The flowers are gathered every day (they each last only one day), since the stigmas must be removed as soon as possible. About twenty people working a one-hectare field will pick 100 g of flowers per hour, and one hectare will produce only 6 kg of saffron. The whole flower is harvested, and loads of flowers are taken to other workers, who pluck out the three stigmas with their fingernails. The stigmas are immediately set out to dry in the sun or over a wood or charcoal fire. The drying technique is very important, as the quality of the saffron depends on it.

Saffron is an autumn-flowering crocus

We who are more familiar with spring-blooming crocuses find it surprising that Crocus sativus spreads its large lavender to purple corollas in the fall. So it is easy to confuse this crocus with autumn crocus. Autumn crocus, a member of the Liliaceae family, has six stamens and three distinct styles, while saffron crocus, which belongs to the Iridaceae family, has three stamens and a style divided into three stigmas. Saffron comes from these three very long (about 2.5 cm) reddish-orange stigma of C. sativus.

The word “crocus” is said to derive from the Greek word krokos, meaning thread, probably an allusion to the long, thin stigmas. The word “saffron,” for its part, comes from the Arabic word za'farân, meaning yellow, which is the colour obtained from the stigmas. The oldest image of saffron, dating from 1700 to 1600 BC, was found on a fresco in the palace of Minos, in Crete.

Saffron is thought to have first been cultivated in ancient Greece and Asia Minor. Cultivation was originally centred in Mesopotamia and then spread both east and west. The plant was brought to Spain by the Arabs and to southern Europe by the Crusaders. Today we know only the cultivated form of C. sativus and there is no agreement regarding its ancestors. It is a triploid (with three sets of chromosomes) and sterile plant, which never produces any seeds. Saffron crocus has been cultivated for some 4,500 years, and was likely selected from a wild population precisely because of its vigour as a hybrid, visible in its impressive corolla and stigmas.

This sterile ancient clone had to be propagated vegetatively. Even today, research covering various populations has shown very great uniformity in its genetic makeup.

Fortunately, just a pinch is enough in cooking, dyes and pharmacology.

These days saffron is used more as a food condiment, since synthetic dyes have taken its place and medical research has not yet successfully proven that it has any medicinal properties. Yet over thirty medicinal preparations based on saffron have been found on Egyptian papyruses dating from the 16th century BC. Once considered a cure-all, saffron is still part of Chinese and Indian medicine. In particular, it is one of the plant products highest in riboflavin, or vitamin B2.

As a dye, saffron yields a luminous golden hue. One part of saffron is enough to colour 100,000 parts of water. In ancient times, the Greeks and Chinese made it a royal dye. In the Middle Ages, monks used a glue based on egg whites coloured with golden saffron to illuminate manuscripts. Saffron also gives its lovely golden colour to chartreuse, a liqueur.

The delicate and spicy aroma of saffron develops as it dries. Fresh stigmas are odourless. Wealthy Romans perfumed their baths with saffron. It gives food a spicy, pungent, bitter taste. Spanish paella, Italian risotto and French bouillabaisse are all classic dishes that contain this spice, not to mention many highly flavoured Indian dishes. It is also much used in pastry making – saffron buns are very popular treats in some parts of Europe.

Here are a few tips for using it:

  • Just a pinch is enough to colour and perfume sauces, soups and fish, rice and poultry dishes. Careful, though, for too much saffron imparts a medicinal taste.
  • Soak the threads in a bit of hot water or broth before adding them, so that the colour and taste will permeate the entire dish.
  • Don’t use wooden utensils – they are absorbent, and you don’t want to waste even a tiny bit of this precious spice!

Real or fake?

Watch out for imposters!

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a member of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family. Its dried rhizome yields a yellow colour used in making curry powder. It was once known as Indian saffron. Meadow saffron is the common name of autumn crocus (Colchicum automnale), which we mentioned earlier. It has no culinary applications at all, and in fact produces a poison called colchicine, sometimes used to improve plants by inducing genetic mutations.

But above all there is safflower, known as bastard saffron or Portuguese saffron. Carthamus tinctorius is native to western Asia, and is an annual in the Asteraceae (or Compositae) family. Its capitula resemble those of thistles, but the florets are bright yellow turning to burnt orange as they age or dry. Thanks to this colour and especially because they release a yellow colorant (even red at higher concentrations), the florets of C. tinctorius are the main saffron substitute. It takes five times more safflower to produce the same effect, however, and it has a mild, insipid taste. In India its seeds are used to produce a highly polyunsaturated cooking oil called safflower oil. Before synthetic products came along, its main colorant was employed in dyeing. It is also used to colour butter and margarine. In Europe and the United States, safflowers are cultivated as ornamental plants, and make a lovely addition to dried flower arrangements. The cosmetic industry chemically extracts carthamine, a red powder that is mixed with talcum powder to produce rouge, or blush.

As far back as the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder said that saffron was the most falsified commodity, and the situation has not changed with time. A number of tricks are used to increase the weight of saffron: adding oil or glycerine, broken safflower flowers, obviously, but also garden and French marigolds, poppies, corn silk (stigmas), and even bits of coloured plastic! It is even easier to adulterate the powder, as you can imagine, by adding different spices, sugar, starch and so on. But only real saffron imparts its characteristic flavour and rich yellow colour to foods.

Some tips when buying saffron:

  • Don’t be tempted by bargains. Quality saffron is always expensive (0.5 g of threads may cost $2.50 to $3.00, but powdered saffron will be about half this price).
  • Store your saffron in a dark, dry place and it will keep for several years.
  • Quality threads are dark red, long (2 to 3 cm) and fine. You should be able to see the hollow bit at the tip of the stigma. If you see any white, it is the base of the styles; any yellow is the stamens, resulting from clumsy picking. Any little tufts of orange are safflower florets – they will give you the colour, but not the taste.

Unfortunately, the best way to tell whether saffron is authentic or not is to soak it. Real stigmas will resume their shape and keep their lovely colour, while fake fragments will be seen for what they are.

Ah! nature

We are accustomed to buying spices and herbs in ground form, so more often than not we don’t know exactly what part of the plant is used. Is it the leaves? The roots or the rhizome, the flowers or just the flower head? But the stigmas! You have to admit that it takes imagination to have thought of it!

Based on an article by Édith Morin in Quatre-Temps magazine, 21(4): 12-14.

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