Saffron – the most versatile and expensive spice

Posted by ap507 at Dec 12, 2016 12:46 PM |
Professor Pat Heslop-Harrison discusses saffron and how to tell the genuine article from a fake
Saffron – the most versatile and expensive spice

Saffron flower

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Saffron is the most expensive agricultural product in the world - £5 to £10 per gram, the price of 20 kg of wheat flour at the same supermarket. But the price of a few strands in each serving, to make a fragrant, orange-coloured rice dish, sweet or savoury, is only a few pence a serving. A saffron tea bag is similar in price to any other specialist tea (and may be cheaper as it makes several cups).

What is saffron? It is part of the flower of an autumn-flowering crocus - the orange female part or the stigmas which collect the pollen. You need about 100,000 flowers to collect 1kg of saffron spice, so costly to produce. At that price, fraudulent and fake saffron in widespread. I’m happy to say that checks we have made in British and other European Supermarkets have shown prepacked saffron is the right thing. However, it is a different story if you buy from markets with handfuls of ‘saffron’! How can you tell the difference? Mostly, you will get the colour (artificial or natural, perhaps from a thistle flower or turmeric), but you will not get the taste and aroma that makes saffron dishes so special. You will end up concluding that you wasted your £1 per gram, rather than enjoying the taste from £5 per gram.

When you buy saffron, use your eyes and nose when you open it. Most importantly, fake saffron will have almost no aroma, while the smallest amount of saffron will have a characteristic aroma, and if you put it onto your tongue, a bitter and slightly astringent taste. The fibres/strands will look like real saffron which has the strand and a diffuse end. Interestingly, saffron is not as short-lived in storage as many other spices. If reasonably dry, kept in a dark and sealed bottle, it will keep well for two to five years in a cool cupboard. Saffron producers say not to freeze it; the aroma is not very volatile and there is no lipid content which goes rancid.

Before quality saffron reaches a reputable shop, it will often be checked against a ‘Kite Mark’ International Standards Organization test for Saffron. We are used to seeing Kite Marks on electrical plugs or bathroom fittings, and you have probably not yet seen them on food. This was something of a new area for internationally agreed testing and quality standards, and many comments on the draft for this standard were included from my laboratory as part of a consortium of scientists, traders and producers working on saffron. As well as visual inspection for purity, the colour of the saffron is extracted in water and then measured in a sensitive test instrument, a spectrophotometer. Three different compounds, safranal, crocin and picrocrocin, give the aroma, colour and taste respectively in saffron, and each is measured separately.

What about the different types of real saffron? Unlike almost any other crop or meat animal, there is minimal genetic variation in the saffron from anywhere in the world where we have sampled it – Kashmir, Iran, Spain, Greece, Holland, France. It seems that the cultivated species, which is not known in the wild, has originated only once. This does not, though, mean that all saffron is equal. Producers from each country are rightly proud of their own saffron, and there are differences in colour and flavour which depend on where the plant is grown – altitude (3000m in Kashmir, sea-level in Iran), soil, temperature and seasonality of rainfall – and in how it is collected, separated from other plant parts, and then dried after collections. Being fortunate in having collaborators working with saffron from throughout the world, I use the saffron from the country of the dish I am making. The local cooks have chosen their foods to complement the special saffron of their farmers: Spanish saffron for paella, Greek for sweets and drinks, Kashmiri for curry.

By Pat Heslop-Harrison

Example science on saffron:  Alsayied NF, Fernández JA, Schwarzacher T, Heslop-Harrison JS. Diversity and relationships of Crocus sativus and its relatives analysed by inter-retroelement amplified polymorphism (IRAP). Annals of botany. 2015 Sep 1;116(3):359-68. https://doi.org/10.1093/aob/mcv103

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