The Truth About Saffron
It appears that saffron is a flavor we either love or loathe. I’m in the love camp, and thoroughly enjoy a good, earthy paella and tagine as well as freshly baked saffron bread tinted a delicate shade of yellow and with the slightly bitter flavor of this valuable stigma of the autumn crocus. I also drink saffron as a decaffinated tea, as it contains numerous health benefits, and a well made ice cream, redolent with saffron is a rare treat.
So what’s bad about saffron?
Intrinsically nothing. However, as it has reigned as queen of the expensive flavors and spices since Medieval times, unscrupulous dealers throughout the centuries have passed off safflower and other imposters as the real deal. And despite the laws we have in place to make our food safe, it’s happening right here in the US.
Here’s what’s going on:
All saffron sold commercially is now grown in Iran and Afghanistan. Whoa! What about Spain? Times have changed in sleepy La Mancha, where no one tilts with windmills and the region no longer closes down in October for the crocus harvest. Families no longer sit around long tables tweezers-in-hand, plucking the three stigmas from each flower and dropping the purple petals in baskets. Trays of saffron threads no longer rest about the family stove, drying just enough to be packaged and shipped to those who value this coveted flavor in their foods.
Nope, those days are gone, but Spain still plays a pivotal role in the dispersal of it. And it is in Spain that saffron is doctored and passed off as pure and natural.
For many years saffron has been an important Persian export, perhaps not as valuable as petroleum, but for the culinary world, a necessary delicacy. Sanctions and a changing climate have been very difficult for saffron for quite some time and prices have continued to edge upwards. However, sanctions have been lifted and Iran is again offering premium quality saffron.
Saffron prices have skyrocketed, selling for $1600 a pound or more. Of course, most of us buy a few grams or half an ounce at a time, enough for several meals, but at around $4.00 a gram, saffron is an affordable luxury.
Because Spain has been known for centuries as the only place to buy saffron, it is shipped to from Iran to Spain for repackaging, then exported as Spanish saffron.
While this is not true of all saffron emerging from Spain, a significant portion is processed to remove the volatile oils and colorants, which is then sold to Japan as a coveted dye. The threads are left with little flavor and their color is largely gone. Red dyes banned in much of Europe and in the United States are applied to the threads, then dried, packaged in decorative tins, and sent off to Big Box stores, supermarkets and other destinations, including specialty stores, where they are sold. There is no way to check the saffron in the tins until after it is purchased. The price may be significantly lower, but what you’re purchasing is very poor quality.
US customs is aware of what is going on, but is allowing it through unchallenged. As it can cost $40,000 for a full lab report, it’s easier to look the other way rather than inspect each shipment that arrives in our ports.
If you have bought saffron recently, check it carefully. Smell the threads. The odor should be clean and pungent. Tainted saffron that I smelled had only a faint saffron aroma. The threads themselves were dull and mottled, not vibrant with a red and yellow hue.
If you love saffron, don’t take the risk of being duped. And if you buy, make a celebratory iced saffron tea; you’ll love it!