Societies have cultivated saffron for over 3000 years, starting with ancient civilizations who treasured the spice for its color and medicinal benefits. Cleopatra prized saffron for its beautifying properties. It is said she put saffron in her warm baths to enhance her allure. Alexander the Great treated his battle wounds with saffron, taking advantage of saffron’s antimicrobial properties.
Today 90% of the world’s saffron is grown in Iran. Other major growing regions include: Spain, Italy, Kashmir, Afghanistan, India. Amish counties in the US and England also have saffron growing regions. It is the world’s most expensive spice by weight and, as a result, one of the most adulterated spices. The most common uses for saffron are paella, bouillabaisse, risotto, basmati saffron rice, lassi, buns and baked goods, sweet desserts—but a new generation of chefs and foodies are continuously finding novel uses for the spice.
University of Vermont presentation on history and cultivation around the world.
The saffron corm is planted in late August or early September. By early October the first green shoots appear. By late October the blossoms appear. First year corms produce 0-1 blossoms, but each year the saffron corm multiplies underground—producing daughter corms that will produce their own blossoms. After three years the daughter corms are large enough to be dug up and replanted as new mother corms. The original mother corm with produce for 5-7 years until exhausting its blossom output. Although bees love saffron, the saffron does not need pollination—it is entirely dependent on humans for reproduction.
Vermont and Amish regions in the US turn out to be an excellent regions to grow saffron due the high organic matter content in the rich valley soil. In colder regions such as Italy, Vermont, and mountainous Afghanistan it sleeps dormant under the snow in winter, remains dormant in summer, and sprouts again in the fall.
The saffron blossoms are harvested in the morning. The entire flower is picked off the stalk and collected in baskets. The flowers are then brought indoors, and the bright red pistils are removed from the stamens and petals. Each flower contains 3 pistils. (Although there is no major commercial market for petals or stamens, the petals have an amazing aroma and the stamens produce pollen that can be used in cooking.)
Saffron is the world's most expensive spice because it is immune to automation and so labor intensive to harvest
. The delicate crocus flower must be handpicked early in the morning during Autumn harvest season. The valuable pistils are gently removed and dried.
It takes 70,000-75,000 crocus flowers to produce a pound of dried saffron. Fortunately a little goes a long way. Saffron is incredibly potent when applied to a dish or beverage, or used as a natural dye.
Drying saffron is the most secretive part of the saffron grower’s process. Historically saffron was sun dried in the warm arid regions such as India. In the colder regions such as Italy it was placed near the coals of a wood-fire. Today most commercial operations use large dehydrators or ovens.
Drying saffron creates a chemical reaction that brings out the beneficial compounds of Safranal (responsible for aroma), Crocin (responsible for color), and Picrocrocin (responsible for taste). The temperature and duration of drying determines the trade-offs of these chemical compounds. Commercial saffron is typically dried for long duration at low temperature resulting in strong aroma but dull red color.
At Lemonfair, we opt for shorter, higher heat that results in milder aroma but richer Crocin content (fresh, bright color). Drying saffron also allows it to store for several years if kept out of sunlight and extreme temperatures.