I still have vivid memories of making Moroccan couscous stock back at the St. Paul, Minnesota, restaurant Forepaugh’s as a young cook almost three decades ago. We started with lamb stock and seasoned it with cumin, garlic, cinnamon and saffron—all dominant flavors in their own right. But it was the saffron that permeated the air above the others with its mystique and nobility.
I remember the first time I handled it. Chef asked me to retrieve it from his desk, a big deal in itself. I was admiring the worldly yet understated little tin, and just as I rounded the corner, I dropped it, spilling the entire contents. In a panic, I hastily scooped it up off the floor behind chef’s back and carefully put the delicate threads back in their rightful place. It’s the only time I have invoked the five-second rule.
At an average price of $16 dollars per gram, and accounting for labor, you can make a well-supported case, depending on the state of the commodities exchange, that saffron is more expensive than gold. And I would say it is worth its weight.
Historians believe saffron originated in Greece, although there is no concrete proof.
Deriving from the flower Crocus sativus, the spice we call saffron is made up of precisely three stigma from the center of a single flower. It takes about 1,000 flowers to produce one ounce of spice.
The flowers are a shade of purple that would have made Prince turn green with envy, yet the stigma, only three per flower, are the most vibrant of reds, then produce the most electrifying, day-glow yellow imaginable.
According to the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization, Iran produces 85 percent of the world’s supply. And much like a wine grape grower has to be in a constant state of readiness to pick at the moment of peak sugar content when fall harvest is upon them, the flowers need to be harvested on the very morning they bloom, or the window has closed.
Laced with antioxidants and beta carotenes, saffron contains approximately 150 volatile compounds, which give it its distinct aroma and color. When asked what something tastes like that I cannot readily put into words, I use saffron as an example. As frustrating as it can sound, I tell them you just know it when you taste it.
A “saffron belt” runs laterally from Spain to Kashmir in northern India. Prized by royalty for centuries, the Romans spread it like hay for aesthetic purposes. It has also been said that Cleopatra bathed in saffron-infused mare’s milk while preparing for a potential suitor.
Saffron has been touted throughout the ages as a cure from everything from hemorrhoids to heartache. But, given its price, perhaps treating with gold would be more cost effective!
One of my favorite flavors is passionfruit. I metaphorically describe the flavor as what sunshine might taste like. Saffron, on the other hand, is like a drug for me—when I smell it or taste the spice, it triggers the urge to cook.
Saffron has all the sultry appeal of a James “Bond Girl.” I wonder, is there another spice that has the value and allure of saffron? As a matter of fact there is, and it’s actually far more familiar to the home cook. Until next time …
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.