Home Page

Stefan's Florilegium


This document is also available in: text or RTF formats.

saffron-art - 8/11/97


How to buy and select saffron.


NOTE: See also the files: saffron-msg, herbs-msg, spices-msg, merch-spices-msg, herb-uses-msg, garlic-msg, rue-msg, spice-mixes-msg, sumac-msg, G-of-Paradse-msg.





This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I  have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.


This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


I  have done  a limited amount  of  editing. Messages having to do  with separate topics  were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the  message IDs  were removed to save space and remove clutter.


The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I make  no claims  as  to the accuracy  of  the information  given by the individual authors.


Please  respect the time  and  efforts of  those who have written  these messages. The  copyright status  of these messages  is  unclear at this time. If  information  is  published  from  these  messages, please give credit to the originator(s).


Thank you,

    Mark S. Harris                  AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                          Stefan at florilegium.org



Date: Wed, 6 Aug 1997 21:41:05 -0700 (PDT)

From: rousseau  at scn.org (Anne-Marie Rousseau)

Subject: SC - [hill  at worldspice.com: Saffron 101 (pretty dang long, even for me, so watch out)]


Hi all from Anne-Marie.

I asked my favorite spice guy about saffron and this is what he sent me.

Very detailed, but that's what I've come to expect from Tony. He can do

similar dissertations on chiles and cinnamon and cassia and carob and...

For the record, he runs a great spice shop here in Seattle (which does

mail order! Hooray! Cubeb and grains of paradise and real cocoa beans

and...) and has been a fount of information whenever we asked.


Hope this


- --AM


    ================= Begin forwarded message =================


    From: hill  at worldspice.com (Tony Hill)

    To: rousseau  at scn.org ("'rousseau  at scn.org'")

    Subject: Saffron 101 (pretty dang long, even for me, so watch out)

    Date: Wed, 06 Aug


    Spiceboy here....


    I leave you folks alone for a few weeks and you whip up a spice

    controversy. Sheesh. Here's the scoop on saffron that I learned from

    Paxci Contero (my GROWER in Spain, notice I said GROWER not DISTRIBUTOR)

    and the esteemed Nimal Fernando (my GROWER in India). The most important

    thing to remember with saffron is that it IS affordable, even the top

    grades, when you cut through all the marketing hype, extra packaging,

    and national pride that is often a block to getting the true story.


    The stamen of the Saffron Crocus is what makes the spice we call

    Saffron. It takes some 70,000 flowers (about an acre under cultivation)

    to make one pound and it must be picked (de-stamen-ified) by hand. They

    have large rooms of mostly women (men's hands are too big and we're not

    so gentle...no mail please, it's a few hundred years of tradition

    talking) who sit around plucking the stamen of huge baskets of flowers.

    In fact, most of the saffron production is small family operations who

    in turn sell their harvest to large co-ops and brokers.


    The harvest comes in late October (after one heck of a festival, oh the

    wine!) and that crop is sold as the "current year crop" for the next

    twelve months i.e. today in August '97 the "current year crop" is Fall

    '96. This is the first major grading point of saffron...time. The

    current year crop is always going to command a higher price that

    previous years. Saffron loses about 40% of its potency and richness of

    flavor in the first year. Oddly, after that first year it levels off and

    drops about 5-10% per year until it's totally "spent" at about 7 years

    age. In fact, the Spanish trust saffron as much as they trust banks so

    everyone has a stash in the basement...just in case. These reserves are

    often willed to heirs. Personally, I rather take the castle just outside



    I'm talking of Spanish sources but in fact Saffron is grown in over 30

    distinct regions, most of which are for local consumption but a few of

    which (Spanish Mancha & Rio, Kasmir Moogra, Iraqi, Central Mexican) make

    enough for export markets. We try to sample as many as possible at the

    start of the season in a BLIND taste test (we did 12 this year, 5 of

    which were Spanish, each cooked with plain rice for a set time, it's a

    fun experiment) and pick the best of the lot. This is the second major

    point and the one that is clouded by national pride most often, Spain

    makes the best...period. I've tried lots from Africa, Mexico, all over

    Persia and even went to Canada to try some "illegal" Iraqi product.

    Bottom line year after year is buy Spanish. The other countries, while

    nice for a slightly reduced price, lack the depth of flavor and

    complexity on the palate. Why skimp when the prices are in line from

    Spain. I noticed the real upswing in popularity of non-Spanish product

    only comes when Spain has a bad year and the price shoots up. From a

    FLAVOR perspective, Spain takes the paella.


    That said, which Spanish should you buy?  The marketing terms run amuck.

    "Top", "Special", "Premier", and even "Imperial" have all been used on

    me at one time or another but the only terms endorsed by the Spanish

    government (who take saffron VERY seriously) are "First Quality",

    "Second Quality", and "(no grade)". These terms truly are grades of the

    size, flavor, and coloring ability of the product. The other important

    terms you'll hear are actually the areas of production but can often be

    bent into a pseudo-grade. For Spain they are "Mancha" (generally the

    best) and "Rio" (still very good but one step down from the other). Do

    the math and you come up with "Mancha First Quality" as the cream of the



    It should also be mentioned to look for the "PURE SPANISH" label and the

    "SEAL OF QUALITY" on the container. There are lots of places that will

    blend non-Spanish with Spanish. This stuff usually happens much higher

    in the food-chain that your domestic US retailer so even he may be in

    the dark. "PURE" is the key word. A good merchant will buy in bulk with

    the seal intact and repack it down to smaller sizes for retail sale. In

    this case, he should still be able to produce the original seal showing

    the quality grade. (It's usually a red sticker with the grade and the

    word "Azafran" wrapped around a cute flowery symbol). Above all, let the

    taste guide you.


    I will mention that some dishes, especially those cooked for long

    periods of time, may not get the full delicate flavor that the top

    grades yield. I don't, however, buy into the argument that "this low

    grade will do for this dish" because there isn't a linear degradation

    (look at me using those college words) in flavor between grades. The

    cheap, older grades go south much faster than the better ones. Don't be

    cheap, your food can tell.


    Next on the smart saffron shopper list is an easy one, buy the product

    whole. There is absolutely NO good reason to grind it before you use it

    (let it soak in a few tablespoons of water for 10 minutes, BTW) and in

    fact most ground product has been cut with something like turmeric.


    Long wiry threads of a rich, bright red color are what you look for. A

    few threads per 100 will be a true yellow color and that's OK, in fact

    it's a sign of freshness. As dark as maroon and you've got yourself old

    saffron. Look in the bottom of the tin for broken pieces of threads

    (also a sign of old age) and try to "squeeze" the bag of saffron. It

    should still be pliable and "bounce back" when it's fresh, not crumbly

    and brittle. (don't try this at Safeway, those managers can be mean when

    you go pokin' around in their spices).


    If you see short, angular threads of a yellow-red color, you've got

    yourself Safflower, also called "Bastard Saffron" or "Osfor". It's a

    good coloring agent but has little or no taste and is nothing like the

    real deal. This is the stuff you get in Istanbul for $5 the pound.

    Plenty of folks come into the shop trying to sell me this "great stuff I

    got from a "farmer" in the market stalls...he said it was good saffron".

    I hate to break the news to them because I KNOW they sold the same guy

    their good pants to make room in the suitcase.


    The last point is to clear up the price myth. Yes, it's big bucks per

    pound but you only need about 20 cents worth (about 10 threads) for most

    dishes. This year, we sell it retail for $3/half gram, Spanish Mancha

    First Quality. It's the only "version" I sell because the price is in

    line with the rest of the world supply for me when I buy large

    quantities (About 25 Kilos per year) from one source. I've seen the fair

    market values in major metro areas of $5-$10 per gram for the same

    quality and current crop. Other qualities and origins make it to market

    for slightly less, but remember that the lure of "exotic saffron" will

    get just about anyone to pop for three bucks for any grade they can get

    their hands on. Retailers know this and will always sell "some" (the

    masses don't know the going rates) of a "good" quality (see the

    marketing fluff earlier) for any price that buyers won't flinch and run

    screaming from the store. Most sales in the US are "curiosity" sales and

    people just don't care/know about the value. (But you folks are

    different, right?)


    You can expect discounts for larger quantities, say ounces, but make

    sure you store such amounts properly(Air tight, out of the light, vacuum

    sealed if possible). Remember what you're not paying for is packaging

    but you also don't get the convenience of drawing from a retailers

    "current", fresh crop. It's a trade off that only you can decide on. The

    going retail price for the top grade out of Spain right now by the ounce

    bulk package should be around $75 and for the pound about $800 (US

    dollars of course). Keep in mind that these numbers fluctuate from year

    to year and generally drop by 30% over the course of the year.


    Hope this clears up some mystery. Remember, I'm just one little spice

    trader in a big spice world (or is that World Spice (tm)) and you'll

    hear plenty of opinions on this stuff. Let your OWN PALATE decide and do

    what you think is best (don't run with scissors, either) Let me know if

    I can be of help. I'll answer Email as fast as I can. Above all, get

    some saffron, cook something new with it, open a bottle of wine and

    invite friends over. It's worth the effort.


    Eat Well, Drink Tea, & Enjoy Life!

    - Tony Hill, Owner

    >World Spice Merchants & Pekoe - A Global Teahouse

    >Downtown Seattle below Historic Pike Place Market

    >1509 Western Avenue, Seattle, WA 98101 USA

    >Voice: 206.682.7274 FAX:206.622.7564

    >Email:hill  at worldspice.com



Anne-Marie Rousseau

rousseau  at scn.org

Seattle, Washington


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org