saffron-art - 8/11/97
How to buy and select saffron.
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
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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.
================= 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
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
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
rousseau at scn.org