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The Important Truth About Saffron


What is bad about saffron?
Intrinsically nothing. However, as saffron has reigned as queen of the expensive flavors and spices since Medieval times, unscrupulous dealers throughout the centuries have used safflower and other imposters as the real deal. Unfortunately, despite laws to keep our food safe, sleight-of-hand is even 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 then shipped to those who value this coveted flavor in their foods.

Sadly, those days are gone, but Spain still plays a pivotal role in the dispersal of saffron. Spain is where saffron is doctored and passed off as a pure, natural flavor.

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. At about $4.00 a gram, saffron is actually an affordable  luxury.

Because Spain has been known for centuries as the only place to buy saffron, it is shipped 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, 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 Spanish tins, and sent 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 not what you had in mind.

US customs is aware of what is going on, but allows it through unchallenged. As it can cost up to $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. Purchase quality saffron, then store it in a cool, dark cupboard, where it will last for years.

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True Cinnamon or Not?

Cinnamon is a flavor just about everyone recognizes, but did you know that’s  there’s more than one kind?  One’s true and one’s not though you can find both here in the States.   So how do you know  “what is and what ain’t”?

Remember “red-hots,” those bright red candies that sizzled your tongue?  In high school Home-Ec class we put them into  applesauce, which still puzzles me as it was neither a time- nor money-saver but it did

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Turmeric, Curcuma longa, is a rhizome and member of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae.  It is native to tropical South Asia.  The plants are gathered annually and re-seeded with some of the rhizomes the following season.  The rhizomes are boiled, then dried in hot ovens and finally ground.  Turmeric has an earthy, bitter and peppery flavor.

Turmeric’s active ingredient, curcumin, is a powerful

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Black Pepper

Black Pepper, Piper nigrum, comes from a flowering vine that produces a fruit containing a single seed.  The fruit, when dried and used as a spice, is known as a peppercorn.  The peppercorns and the ground pepper are variously referred to as black, white, red, pink, and green pepper, and sometimes, just pepper.

Black pepper is native to South India and continues to be grown there, as well as in many other tropical countries.  It is a perennial woody vine that

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Nutmeg and Mace

Nutmeg and Mace come from an evergreen tree, Myristica fragrans, which is indigenous to the Molucca Islands of Indonesia and is now also cultivated on other Indonesian islands, on West Indian islands in the Caribbean, in Malaysia and India.  There are related varieties grown in Papua New Guinea and India that are not as high quality.

The nutmeg tree produces a mottled yellow fleshy fruit or pericarp that is made into jam in both Indonesia and Grenada, and is also made into a

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Ginger and Galangal

Ginger, Zingiber officinale, is the underground stem or rhizome of the ginger plant, a lovely large-leafed plant with delicate white and pink flowerbuds that become yellow when open.  The roots are gathered when the plant stalks begin to wither.  Freshly gathered ginger roots are scalded or washed and scraped to stop fermentation and sprouting.  Fresh ginger is juicy and fragrant, with a mild flavor.  Older ginger roots become fibrous, less juicy and the flavor is significantly stronger.  Dry ginger holds its flavor fairly well and is primarily used for baking.  Fresh ginger is used for teas, making ginger ale and beer, ginger wine, and in both savory and sweet dishes.  It is also pickled or crystallized with sugar syrup and used as a sweet on its own, or added to baked goods, salads or entrees for additional flavor.  Unopened flowers are used in some countries in soups and salads.

Ginger originated in Asia and is used

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Cloves, Syzygium aromaticum, Eugenia aromaticum or Eugenia caryophyllata, are the dried flower buds of trees in the Myrtaceae family.  The tree is native to Indonesia and India.  The flower buds are pale at first, then turn green and finally crimson red.  At this point they are ready to harvest.  The ball in the center of the clove is where four undeveloped flower petals were before being dried.

Until relatively recently, the majority of cloves were grown in the Moluccas in Indonesia, known as the Spice Islands.  Cloves were traded to Europe and were extremely valuable, as were pepper and nutmeg.  The Portuguese controlled the cloves market, which is why

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Cassia and Cinnamon

Cassia and Cinnamon are closely related trees native to Asia.  While they are often used interchangeably, their flavors are somewhat different.  As a result, I’ll start by writing a bit about cassia and then move on to true cinnamon.

Cassia, Cinnamomum aromaticum, is more commonly known as Saigon, Vietnamese or Chinese cinnamon.  It is harvested from the bark of whole branches or small trees.  It has a harsher, stronger flavor than true cinnamon and is considerably less expensive.  It is used extensively in the U.S., whereas true cinnamon is preferred in Mexico, South America and Europe.

Cassia was primarily produced in Vietnam until

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Cardamom is a seed from pods produced by two varieties of the ginger family, Elettaria, known as green cardamom or true cardamom, and Amomum, commonly known as black cardamom.  Cardamom originated in India and Southeast Asia.  Two Indian varieties are known as Malabar, which comes from the state of Kerala, and Mysore, which is a native variety from Karnataka state.

Cardamom is intensely fragrant, with a strong, unique flavor.  It is commonly used in Indian cooking, especially in traditional sweets and some masalas or spice blends, as well as in chai tea blends. It is used

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Annatto or achiote, comes from Bixa orellano, a tree native to the Americas.  While the tree is believed to have originated in Brazil, it spread throughout Latin America very early.  The pulp surrounding the seeds of this tree produce a dye that varies from reddish to yellow.  It was most likely originally used as body paint and lipstick, and then later became a food coloring and flavor.  Because of its early uses, it has been referred to as the lipstick tree.  It is now grown and used in Asia.

The heart-shaped fruits of the tree become reddish-brown when mature.  The fruits split open, exposing the seeds.  The fruit itself is not edible; the seeds inside the fruit are what are used.  The seeds have a mildly sweet, peppery flavor. 

The dye created from achiote is made by

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Allspice is the fruit of the Pimenta dioica tree, native to southern Mexico, Central America and the Greater Antilles, and now grown in many tropical regions of the world.  The tree is mid-sized and similar in appearance to the Bay laurel tree. The fruits are harvested green, then dried in the sun, usually on large cement slabs or on tarps near the trees.  The brown, dried fruits look very much like peppercorns.  The English believed ground allspice was a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, which is why it was named allspice. 

Allspice is one of the most important flavors in Caribbean cooking.  The fresh leaves are used to infuse flavor into foods, then

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Spice Farms in Kerala, India

Courtesy of Courtenay Dunk: www.spicelines.com 

For just a moment, for no reason I can decipher, I am in a place I know better than I should; I fall through the gratings of the conscious mind and into a place that observes a different kind of logic.

–Pico Iyer, Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign

Tall palms cloaked in heart-shaped leaves. Pepper vines dangling heavy clusters of green, unripe fruit.

Vaguely Indonesian houses, bright blue, burnt orange, pale pink stucco. Tip-tilted red tile roofs topped with bulbous finials pointing skyward.

A woman, head held high, striding along

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