Saffron is one of the natural world's most precious commodities. The value of this spice which comes from the stigmas of the dried flower saffron crocus is almost equal its weight in gold. The labor required to produce the product and its sensitivity to growing conditions are other reasons for saffron's high value.
Although the plant's origins are heavily debated, one of the more popular theories is that it came from Asia Minor, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. The Moors brought the spice with them during the Spanish invasion, which accounts for its abundance in the region. Spanish saffron, grown in a high plateau known as La Mancha, accounts for over 70% of the of the world's production. Other areas of high-production include India, China, and other southward-sloping Asian countries.
Every year, for a brief period in October, the crocus flowers open up - meaning they're ready for harvesting. By the next day, the Spanish countryside is awash in a beautiful purple carpet of saffron flowers. However, the beauty cannot be admired for long; the blooming period only lasts for a short two weeks. During this time, farmers work around the clock (even in day and night shifts!) to collect as many flower-stigmas as they can. Harvesting is a very difficult endeavor; farmers must pick the delicate, minute stigmas by hand which requires long, back-injuring hours. To yield one pound of quality saffron, 50.000 - 75,000 flowers must be picked, or the size of a standard soccer field! This certainly accounts for much of its value.
After harvest time, the farmers separate the reddish stigma and roast them on a sieve - this produces the saffron we use for food preparation, fabric coloring and medicinal purposes. In the town of Consuegra, the Fiesta de la Rosa del Azafran celebrates the end of harvesting season. Every year at the end of October, music and dancing fill the streets to celebrate a successful season. Azafran is the Spanish word for saffron.
Although saffron is grown in all parts of the world, Spanish saffron is renowned as the highest-quality. There are subtle differences between spices, but a professional is quick to detect the intense flavor and color brilliance of saffron that comes from Spain. Flowers grown on La Mancha produce the highest-grade possible.
Saffron is known for its bitter, hay-like taste - which sounds distasteful, but it's actually quite the treat for mature palates. The spice is found in many cheeses, meat dishes and liquors; in Spain it's commonly used as a condiment for rice. The Spanish dish paella, which combines rice, tomatoes and fish, also relies on saffron to give it the signature taste.
When buying Spanish saffron, it's best to purchase the individual, dry stems. Many stores will offer the spice in the form of a powder, which is cheaper and relatively easier to find. However, powders are often cut with different ingredients, which make the saffron impure. Quality saffron should be kept in a cool, dry compartment, which will keep it fresh for 2-3 years.
Anne Clarke writes numerous articles for Web sites on parenting, recreation, and home decor. Her background also includes teaching, gardening, and fashion. For more of her useful articles on this exotic spice, please visit Saffron , supplier of saffron information and recipes.