Saffron: Growing a Coveted Spice


Photo by Rainer Zenz/Wikimedia

To try saffron rice pudding, click here for the recipe.

Every fall at the Yale Farm we grow one of the world's most expensive crops. It's not the contraband you might think of when you imagine liberal-minded college kids on a farm but instead a prized spice: saffron. In medieval times, when saffron was favored as one of three major spices (along with ginger and black pepper), the demand for it sent legions of explorers around the globe and motivated world trade. The French couldn't get enough of it, the Spanish used the precious spice for paella, and Italians invented recipes for gold-tinted monkfish--all so they could take advantage of the unique color saffron imparts.

Saffron is harvested from crocus sativus.The saffron threads are the exaggerated sex organs of the plant. Most people know crocus as the long-awaited first sign of spring, but sativus is an outlier, a herald of fall. This variety is stunning in mid-October, well after other flowers have faded. Tufts of grass-like leaves poke out of the ground, followed by rounded purple blossoms. From a distance, the flower, breaking through fall's brown leaves, is identical to its spring-blooming relatives, which bloom out of winter's last snow.

While there's no punishment for selling inferior quality saffron today, in medieval times, the offense was punishable by law.

If you get closer to the little jewels, you'll catch a waft of their heady fragrance, reminiscent of gardenias. And you'll see the blossom's three red stigma--vermillion banners that flop around, ready to catch pollen so sativus can reproduce. Compared to your average garden-variety crocus, these stigmas have porn-star proportions. And it is the dried stigma that you know as saffron.

Saffron is tricky to harvest. Each stigma must be hand picked the same day the flower starts to bloom. An Italian grower once passionately told me about watching her crocus so she could harvest the stigma as soon as the bud broke. Once harvested, the stigma is then dried under the sun's hot rays, or a warm oven.

The delicate work of harvesting saffron resists mechanization, which makes the spice costly. Saffron prices are extraordinary. Sur La Table sells three grams--the weight of three one-dollar bills--for $30. In contrast, you can get 75 grams of Hungarian paprika for a measly $5. Saffron is cultivated where it is warm and dry, in Iran, Spain, Northern Italy, India--and now, New Haven.

Inferior saffron sometimes includes the style, the extension of the stigma that delivers pollen to the plant's ovary. While there's no punishment for selling inferior quality saffron today, in medieval times, the offense was punishable by law. Adding sawdust, water, or dirt could all earn you fines, a jail sentence, and in some cases, death.

But even with all its dramatic history and high maintenance, the spice is a real delight and worth the trouble. Saffron is well loved for its bitter, almost hay-like taste, and also for its color. It has the ability to dye a dish--or the Dali Lama's robes--a bright, saffron yellow. Our intern Nozlee talks about a great recipe from her mother for sholeh zard, a traditional Iranian rice pudding whose name translates to "yellow soup."

Saffron is precious enough that recipes rarely call for more than a generous pinch. And because it's precious, I like to do it up when I use saffron and make paella, perhaps one of the most well-known of saffron-infused fare.