This is the third in an open-ended series of articles about saffron. Part I highlights the culture that produced the renowned saffron-gathering murals dating to the 17th century, B.C.E., on the Aegean island of Santorini. Part II is an examination of saffron in classical mythology, with particular regard to the representation of female Olympian deities.
Today, I’ll be the Saffron Mother. I’ll tell you perilously close to everything you ever wanted to know about sourcing saffron — there’s lots to be wary of — and cooking with it to fantastic effect. If you find you need to know more about saffron than I’ve written here, more even than you can learn from the research materials cited at the end of the post, then you are indeed special.
The image under the title, Still Life, painted by Adriaen van Utrecht in 1644 and now in the Rijksmuseum, depicts not a single thread of saffron unless, as is distinctly possible, saffron is an ingredient in the luxurious game pie spilling its contents onto a tray just below and to the right of the parrot. The brighter tones of the painting, however — from the pale yellow of the tulips to the intense yellow of the lemons to the gold-red of the peaches to the striking orange-red of the outsize boiled lobster — sumptuously evoke the saffron palette. Evoke but do not approach it. If you think a boiled lobster is a vivid orange-red, then you have not made a saffron infusion in a glass pot, and sat spellbound as light passed through it before taking it unto yourself.
Making a Saffron Infusion
An infusion is exactly the place to start a personal investigation of saffron. After all, you might not like the stuff, and if that’s how you are, well…better to know it before you add it to food. A word to the wise — never, never introduce saffron threads into your mouth as you might do a cardamom pod. Oh, no. You won’t know it from crushed Ibuprofen if you take it in that way.
The red-orange tangle in the photo above left shows dried saffron threads many times magnified, but an actual-size photo would fail to instruct. Above right is the only flower in the world that saffron comes from, the Crocus sativus L., or saffron crocus. Those shriveled yellow things are its stamens, and no one eats them or uses them for dye, because they release neither flavor nor color, newsy looking though they may be. Those satiny red things are its lady parts, called stigmas. It is this, dried, that you will infuse and taste.
To prepare an infusion, take a pinch of dried saffron threads and fling them into a clear glass vessel that will withstand boiling water. A glass teapot is ideal, especially one with an infuser chamber. Failing that, a Pyrex bowl and a strainer will work — just don’t miss out by infusing in porcelain or some otherwise opaque container. Place your vessel in front of a window during daylight. Pour into it about 8 ounces of boiling water.
Immediately, the water will start to color an opulent yellow, deepening over the next few minutes to a clear thrilling orange. About 50,000 years ago, painters in Iraq applied this color to animals on the walls of a cave. Much later, in the early Bronze Age, it was daubed onto the sacred stones of hilltop shrines throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. This color, made from this substance, has a long, long history of delighting human beings, and you are about to drink of it.
But not just yet. Let the saffron threads continue to infuse for about 20 minutes; while remaining clear, the liquid will gradually intensify in color. Try to sit at your window and look on as this happens — it’s mood-elevating to do so, deeply enlivening, and will contribute to your anticipatory pleasure. More than all that, you will be keeping faith with those distant humans who first teased out the difference between survival and desire, never a wrong thing to do.
The photo at left, courtesy of the BBC, shows an infusion after several minutes. But, honestly, the camera cannot capture it. To heat the infusion back up, pour in about another 8 ounces of boiling water, and strain the liquid into a glass cup — or a jelly jar. While this liquid is cooling to the temperature you think tea should be drunk at, re-infuse the strained threads in a few tablespoons of boiling water, and conserve this for later, when you will cook with it.
Okay, it’s time. The steaming brilliant liquid in the cup before you will have a gorgeous aroma. It is bitter, it is creamy, it is musky, it is luxurious. People have said saffron smells of so many things: wild honey, fresh earth and new-mown hay. You cannot get near another scent that so perfectly expresses the truth of flowers, the fury beneath the sweetness, nor one that speaks so frankly of civilization’s refinements.
If you have eaten the food of the Punjab, or Persian cuisine, or Sephardic cooking, or some of the classical dishes of the northern Mediterranean, or even just bitten into a characteristic yellow bun in Cornwall, then you have tasted saffron — but not like this, in isolation. And you need to taste it like this, to discern how much saffron is right for you in the dishes you will use it to flavor. Too much can taste overwhelming or even medicinal, too little is kind of pointless.
So, take a sip. It’s an epiphanial taste, no? It tastes like it smells, and like what it is — the female parts of an autumn-blooming flower coveted since Prehistory for its frighteningly beautiful stain and magically salubrious properties. Xerxes knew this taste, and Alexander and Aurangzeb. Nowhere on earth is it disregarded. And now you too have had it.
I know — what if you don’t like it? And don’t wish to finish drinking the infusion or use the rest in cooking? All is not lost. It may just be that your palate is extremely sensitive to anything that tastes at all bitter. If you don’t like arugala, artichokes, pomegranates, tamarind, wild asparagus, green tea, tobiko, rosewater, cilantro, Seville oranges, dark chocolate or fresh chilis, then the odds are very great you will not like saffron and should not put yourself out to try it, even though saffron tastes like none of those things, exactly. But if you’ve made the infusion anyhow, and are nonplussed, then stir in some sugar or honey. Still no go? Then call almost any good cook living nearby, and make their day. Just say you have about 16 ounces of slightly sweetened bright orange saffron water, with a big pinch of semi-infused threads on the side. They’ll be right over.
If on the other hand you are transported by the infusion, whimpering with lust to wrap your lip around still more saffron, then finding out how to choose and use it is the route to enlightened consumption. We should look more closely at what saffron is and is not, who produces it and how it is graded, the better to fend off all those vendors ready, in their avarice, to sell us what is not quite saffron.
Punishable by Death
In the Middle Ages in Germany, the crime of adulterating saffron for sale was punishable by death. We know the names of two Nuremberg merchants whose lives ended horribly for that reason. Today, the penalties for the crime are not truly severe, while the motive remains sky-high. Saffron fraud is lucrative, and widespread. In The Seven Deadly Sins (detail left), painted in 1933, the German expressionist Otto Dix transposes the saffron palette into a sickly key for a political allegory that would have been in large part readable by those nefarious German merchants seven centuries earlier. Avarice is the staring hooded figure at the lower left, Envy with its Hitler mustache rides on her back, and Sloth is the skeleton. If, to plump out their profits several years ago, a few hitherto trustworthy olive oil exporters in Italy adulterated their product with tree nut oil, thus posing fantastic risks to the legions of mainly US schoolchildren who go into anaphylaxis if they ingest tree nuts, then what’s a little saffron fraud? It merely detracts from the splendor of certain rarefied experiences at table, after all — it doesn’t really hurt anybody. It can’t be a deadly sin.
Millennia before saffron was a point of gastronomy, however, it was two conceivably more important things that people were willing to pay a bundle for — a dye for the garments of noble women, garments whose color announced to the world the wearer’s station in it, and a powerful medicine for numerous ailments, kidney disease, difficult labor and melancholy among them. Avarice and saffron are linked, as intimately linked as saffron and luxury, saffron and nobility and even divinity.
It Could Happen to You — and It Probably Has
Cynically benefiting from the general confusion about what saffron is, what its signature taste is, and what its true color must be, restaurant chefs of a certain type, and even some home cooks, are inclined to adulterate their saffron dishes with turmeric, or simply to substitute turmeric for saffron, a purer deception. Turmeric is a marvelously tasty, health-giving spice which makes a brilliant yellow stain. While it is foundational to many cuisines, it is not saffron. In the spice market stall photo to the right, you can see truth in advertising about turmeric, if also poor spelling. In case that’s the color of the last paella you had in a redoubtable Mediterranean joint, the chef did not use saffron.
Paprika, left, the chili-related powder disappointingly sprinkled on the crest of twice-baked potatoes and such, is another popular saffron adulterant, albeit one that backfires on the culpable cook, for saffron and paprika are mutually canceling flavors. This won’t stop anyone hoping to deceive through color alone, however — paprika is a nice red food colorant, both earthy and bright. Delicious, too, as you know if you’ve troubled to make a real Hungarian goulash. But saffron and goulash are two words that don’t belong in the same sentence, and one mustn’t punch up a paella this way.
Dried safflower petals, right, are with disarming frankness called “false saffron,” and “the poor man’s saffron.” Despite their relation to safflower oil, they are not actually a food substance but a dye. In the American South, where I was born and raised, safflower petals find their way into love charm bags, notably for gay men. Also into potpourri. If you are good at blending color with your eyes, you can imagine that a blend of turmeric, paprika and powdered safflower petals would make a highly attractive orange-red that would bleed color on contact with moisture. Alas, others less well-intentioned than you can imagine it quite easily too. For this reason alone — and there are other good ones — it’s prudent to stay mostly away from powdered saffron.
Saffron-on-Saffron Crime — If You Can’t Prevent It, Avoid It
Certain saffron producers have found ways to make saffron threads go further not by adulterating them but by packaging them to masquerade — literally to masquerade — as more valuable and potent parts of themselves.
To see how this could — and does — happen, it’s worthwhile to return to the saffron crocus for a closer look at its parts. The graphic in the center above, from the Trade & Environment Database (TED) at American University, schematizes the stalk, called a style, connecting the stigma, the topmost very red part, to the rest of the flower. At its base, the style is white, becoming yellow, then orange, then red, then very red at the stigma. The photo at right, also from TED, shows the actual length of the style. As a cook, you’re interested only in the stigma. But middling saffron — whatever one has been asked to pay for it — may contain much of the rest of the style. Sometimes, you can see it at a glance, as in the pretty photo, below left, from the Saffron USA site, a gateway to suppliers of Spanish saffron. The ratio of dark red to golden-orange and even pale yellow threads means this is not tip-top quality saffron, as attractive to the eye as the color variations are.
Saffron that looks like this, or that has still more yellow threads than this, demonstrates that a product that is pure is not the same thing as one that is potent. If the style is only two inches long, and the dark red half-inch is the business end, then the remaining golden-yellow-orange inch and a half acts mainly to bring up the weight of the product. So while you may have paid less than for stigma-only saffron, you’ve also bought a lot of filler, because the paler three-quarters of the style tastes of nothing, and releases no color.
There’s an invisible and far more villainous condition to be wary of, however. Some saffron producers — who shall be nameless — have been known to spray the entire style with an emulsion made from the stigma. I learned of this outrage from my friend, Juan J. San Mames, owner of Saffron, Vanilla Imports in San Francisco, where I lived for many years. He tells me that some of his competitors are using this method of deriving “product x 300%,” and the eye alone cannot detect it.
So, current techniques of saffron fraud are outstripping the ability of even the finest eye to spot them. What does one do? One refuses to buy saffron that lacks the needed science-based criteria in labeling, that lacks a money-back guarantee if it’s not what the vendor says it is. That is, one refuses to buy most saffron.
The Provenance of the Right Stuff
Below left, in the photo by Steve McCurry, is a crocus field in the province of Khorasan in northeastern Iran, where about 55,000 families work in the saffron industry. To the right is a Reuters photo of saffron-gathering in Kashmir. Saffron culture is skilled, intensive labor, driven by crushing deadlines, for the harvest can occur only during a few weeks in the late autumn. The style need to be rapidly separated by hand from the flowers, themselves hand-picked at dawn in a manner that doesn’t disturb their precious cargo. Cropping the stigma from the style is also a job for hands only — sometimes very small hands. Drying, or curing, happens in special sheds, but it has to start when the style is fresh-plucked from the flower. There’s not a minute to lose.
Picture a football field planted entirely with saffron crocuses — that’s about 75,000 flowers, yielding only a pound of saffron. The amount you’ve probably seen in a little glass phial in the international section of the grocery store is one to two grams, with slightly over 28 grams to the ounce. Iran, where saffron culture goes back 3,000 years, is by far the world’s largest saffron producer. Kashmir produces much less than Iran, but is a more significant producer than any other country. Depending on whose expertise you value most, the wild saffron crocus, Crocus cartwrightianus L., originated either in Western Asia or on the Aegean isle of Crete, but the cultivar, Crocus sativus L., by now belongs as much to Ayurveda and the Mughals as to the Persian Empire and Aegean civilization.
People like those you see in the photos, whole families from children around 10 to grandparents, need to be decently paid for their part in the saffron industry, and that is beginning to happen. That consideration — among others such as hotter, drier summers leading to smaller harvests — must be factored into the decidedly rising price.
For many reasons, I buy only saffron from Iran and Kashmir. That’s what I recommend you do. But let’s look briefly at other choices.
The storied Spanish saffron industry is in a precarious state at present, as reflected by the most recent price per unit, a multiple of its former self, and in any case, shippers of Spanish saffron seem to me to be fonder of marketing terms than of science. “Mancha,” the classic descriptor, refers not to a grade or category of Spanish saffron, but to an area where it was traditionally grown. And even so, it tends to be a real misnomer. Interestingly, compared to Iran, Spain has all these years been a smallish producer of saffron, but a big shipper — of Iranian saffron, which the law has allowed the Spanish to import, package and market around the world as their own. A drought last year in Iran is behind the price jump in “Spanish” saffron. Greek saffron is marvelous, but it’s no bargain, and one is forced to buy it in too small quantities when one can find it at all. In many places across the world, there is “boutique saffron,” reflecting minuscule local industry. I would buy saffron on Santorini, say, from a farmer who grew and processed it right there.
But I’m here, not there. So I stick with superb product that has made it over all the quality hurdles, and that I can purchase in large enough quantities — by the ounce, a little over 28 grams — to benefit from economy of scale.
Zeroing in on Product
I have professional reasons for buying so much saffron, but if I didn’t, I would buy it by the ounce anyway, asking friends who cook seriously — or just a few voluptuaries — to go in with me on the purchase. Everybody would come out far, far ahead, and it’s the smart thing to do.
Below are two photos from the sites of my favorite — my only — suppliers.
Above left is saffron from Iran, sold by my afore-mentioned friend, Juan J. San Mames of Saffron, Vanilla Imports in San Francisco, who has been a direct importer for 30 years. (His vanilla can’t be beat either, but that’s another story.) The fully saturated uniform deep red-orange color is one of the visual benchmarks of top quality Persian saffron, which must be graded “Sargol” (the absolute best) or “Pushali” (the top tier Pushali is very, very close.) Above right is Kashmiri saffron from Baby Brand Saffron, a company in India that dates to the 1840’s. The darker red with its blue overtones — almost a blood orange color — and the faint glossiness of the threads are typical of the best Kashmiri saffron. Proponents of Persian saffron tend not to be the same people who worship saffron from Kashmir, and that’s an argument I don’t wish to take sides in, for it is as needless as it is ferocious.
What, then, is the difference between them, that they have such partisans? Price is one difference, with Kashmiri saffron about 70% more expensive than Persian. Aroma is another. If all you wanted was to sniff at an open 1-ounce tin of saffron — sometimes, that’s all I want — Kashmiri saffron would have considerably more depth and complexity. It’s a knockout. Literal potency is a matter for science to decide, for it can be measured — there’s more about those controls below. But to cook with, do I think one is better than the other? No. If I did, I’d buy that one, and not both. While you can hear the difference between a Stradivarius and a Guarneri del Gesu, and the sound of one instrument might speak to you more, you probably do not believe that one wipes the floor with the other. So it is with the best of the best of Persian and Kashmiri saffron.
A story: recently, I and a group I meet with celebrated the birthday of one of our number with a blind tasting of saffron. We infused Persian saffron from Mr. San Mames as well as Baby Brand Kashmiri saffron, and ultimately murmured an opinion. My friend Lakshmi — writer, statistician and all around terrific cook — who grew up in Bangalore, and whose birthday it was, had the last word. “This,” she said of the Persian saffron, without being told which was which, “is Mediterranean high culture. Whereas this” — the saffron from Kashmir — “is Asia.” That observation is my guide in choosing which one to use when I cook.
Alice Waters once remarked something to the effect that cooking was shopping. She was talking about salad greens, not saffron — but there you have it.
Terms, Touch and Smell
“Sargol” saffron denotes that the stigma has been cut from the style prior to drying. You cannot find any yellow or gold threads in Sargol saffron, and will find almost none in the best Pushali. Importantly, the cutting accelerates drying, because most of the moisture in a saffron thread is concentrated in the style. Moisture not only brings the weight up, but contributes to spoilage.
Thus, Persian saffron that is not Sargol or the best Pushali may become musty, and feel spongy. Familiarity with the literature about saffron will acquaint you with some adjectives that don’t actually belong there. “Musty” as a term of approval is one such, but it’s possible certain writers, sniffing saffron that has not kept well, pick up on the musty aspect as connoting mystery, the quality of being ancient, a precious thing in a chamber long-sealed. There is, too, an earthy note in saffron which some noses cannot tell from damp.
Touch is a great help in evaluating saffron. When you touch Sargol saffron it it is crinkly and dry, and you can easily crumble the threads between your fingers. In a mortar and pestle, it grinds to a powder very fast. It will keep for several years at room temperature in an airtight, lightproof container.
If we were talking about European saffron, the term to look for would be “coupe” — or, cut. It’s the same thing as Sargol — stigma only, cut prior to drying. If you’re traveling in Sicily or in the South of France or in Greece near Macedonia, you might find some very local saffron, and it would be sad not to buy it — as sad as failing to buy apples in Vermont — if it were dry and smelled right and crumbled easily. Not every honest small farmer can send his stuff to the lab for photospectrometry.
Regarding Kashmiri saffron, the term corresponding to Sargol and Coupe is “Mogra,” with “Lacha” comparing to Pushali, although Pushali, ranging from excellent to middling, is a more varied category than Lacha. Mogra is as dry as Sargol, with a more satiny feel, as you might expect from its faint natural gloss. But opportunities for being a connoisseur of Kashmiri saffron are indeed scant. There’s a long line ahead of you for the product, as the greater part goes first to the Subcontinent, Kashmir having supplied India with top quality saffron since the time of the Mughals.
Saffron and Hard Science
Depending on where the rubber meets the road for you, scientific controls on how good your saffron really is will be either crucial or not so interesting. To me, they’re fascinating, for in saffron you have a substance wherein flavor, color and aroma break down to three chemical compounds whose potency can be tested for. The Chemistry section of the Wikipedia main saffron article is very well done — according to me and to people who would know better than I if it were — and I hope you’ll consult it to go a little deeper.
For people mainly interested to cook with saffron, I will greatly simplify the riotous activity beneath the features one looks for. Aroma, flavor and color come from three compounds in saffron — safranal, picocrocin, and crocin, respectively. For the highest category saffron — the Sargol, Mogra, Coupe, and the best Pushali — the minimum value of safranal is 20, and of picocrocin 70. Crocin is measured in “coloring units,” the minimum being 200 for the highest category saffron. There are also minimum allowable percentages for foreign matter, floral waste, moisture and volatile material — all these should be very, very low in the saffron you buy.
These values must be established by third-party testing in an ISO-certified photospectrometry lab, using criteria written by the ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, in Basel, Switzerland. Reading a saffron lab report will tell you exactly what you’ve got your hands on, and I only know one vendor who sends you the lab report for the saffron lot your order came from. This is Mr. San Mames of Saffron, Vanilla Imports. Looking at the report on his most recent shipment of Pushali saffron, you will see that its safranal value is 35.14 (minimum for highest category is 20), its picocrocin value is 86.41 (minimum is 70), and its coloring units 238.14 (minimum is 200.) So the information from him is unusually complete, and highly confidence inspiring. He believes — and I concur with him — that this type of information is what you need to make an informed purchase of the world’s most expensive spice.
Baby Brand Saffron, too, is ISO-certified, with their number on every container, although they do not release a full lab report. Both these vendors give you far more information than any others I know — not to mention a guarantee.
Ready to Cook
The most important thing to know — how to make an infusion — is already in your repertory.
I might be perfectly happy never again to do anything with saffron threads but infuse them and drink the liquid as a tisane. If this is what you want to do too, just think one pinch for every four to six servings. Depending on who’s pinching, a pinch is usually thought of as somewhere between half a gram and a gram. If you want to add sugar, it’s just delightful. Rosewater too. You can turn this into a cold drink by letting it achieve room temperature, pouring it over ice, adding a lime wedge and a sprig of mint. You will look far before you’ll find a friend who won’t be happy to be offered such a drink. If you’re fond of your own company, make these things for yourself occasionally, too.
Saffron infuses not only in water, but in citrus juice, vegetable, chicken or fish stock, and in alcohol. It all depends on your recipe, but remember it’s water-soluble, so it won’t dissolve in oil. The least effective possible way to use saffron is just to crumble it on top of something you’re cooking, or to add it dry at the last minute. To make your saffron go as far as it can, you want always to start activating the compounds at least half an hour ahead of when you actually cook. Cooking with an eye to its maximum potency will get you the best results for the least outlay.
If you’re making rice, you will want to infuse the volume of liquid the recipe calls for, but adding saffron to a sauce can be as simple as infusing a small quantity of liquid — 2 tablespoons, perhaps — and adding it in without worrying the tiny amount of liquid will change the chemistry of performing the recipe.
If you would rather not see saffron threads in your dish, you can pulverize them yourself with a mortar and pestle, or just with the back of a spoon, before infusing. Very occasionally, you will see a recipe where powdered saffron is really best — you’re better off if you powder your own.
Even as an enthusiast, I’d never claim a pinch of saffron improves just about any dish. It should be used judiciously, in recipes that are otherwise simple enough to showcase it. It’s a highly complex flavor, and it’s a great pleasure to think about it as you take it in. That said, there are flavor synergies you may want to investigate, discussed below.
Despite its profligate beauty, store saffron away from light. If it’s visible to you in a glass jar on the kitchen shelf, it’s not going to last as long — but that’s true of any spice.
Saffron and Rice
Cooking with saffron begins — and arguably ends — with learning how to add it to a rice pilaf. The aroma of basmati rice and saffron cooking together is never to be forgotten, and if you made it your signature dish, you could with impunity leave many other cooking lessons unlearned.
You cannot imagine the difficulty of finding photography that does justice to saffron rice. That shows not only the tint a cook needs to look for when she prepares rice with saffron, but that suggests its deep dimensionality, its almost tear-bringing allure. I found the beautiful shot above on the Golden Rice site — not where I would have expected it, since golden rice, thanks to the extra vitamin A in it, is not white but pale, pale gold. (I hope you’ll take the time to read about it, since it’s a route to more complete nutrition for the half of the world for whom rice is the major source of caloric intake.) I would not have imagined that saffron on a pale gold ground could be so vibrant, but this is the most accurate photo of what saffron rice should look like that I’ve ever seen.
The technique for making a rice pilaf in the style of Iran or Central/South Asia is different from what you’d do to produce a risotto, and the rice is different, too. A risotto alla milanese, the saffron rice of northern Italy, is better demonstrated than written about. For that, you need plump, long grain rice from the Po Valley — look for Arborio. If you simply use whatever white rice you have, you could produce a saffron rice gruel, and that would be keenly disappointing. If you’re going for the Iranian/Asian rice pilaf model, take care to use real basmati rice. Delving into theory of Persian cooking, I learned that every grain of rice should be separate from every other in a rice dish. In the photo above, you can count every grain with your eyes — that’s as it should be.
When cooking with basmati rice, remember to rinse it first — just put the measure you intend to cook in a sieve, and run water through it for a few seconds, swishing it with your finger. This rinses off a crucial amount of surface starch. To get a rice pilaf that looks like the one in the photo, I’ve adapted a Goldenrice.org recipe. Executing this recipe with precision and care will give you a heavenly result. If you’re cooking it for friends, please do it at the last minute rather than ahead — the aroma is too soul-satisfying to deny them.
SAFFRON RICE WITH WHOLE SPICES
Heat 2.5 cups of a rich chicken stock or vegetable stock to a simmer, and infuse in it a big pinch of saffron threads. Set it aside for at least half an hour, or even better, start a day ahead with this element of the recipe.
Chop a white onion, and in a heavy-bottomed, lidded saucepan, sautee the onion over medium heat in a splash of canola or coconut oil, until translucent, golden and slightly browned — about 5 minutes. Stir in 1 clove of garlic, smashed and minced, half a cinnamon stick, 6 green cardamom pods and a bay leaf, and cook over medium heat for 2 more minutes.
Add in a heaping cup of rinsed basmati rice, and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring to evenly distribute the contents of your pan. Pour in the saffron-infused stock, add in a scant handful of sultanas or zante currants, and bring to a boil, stirring. Then, lower the heat and cover tightly, cooking gently for about 15 minutes until the liquid is absorbed. Meanwhile, toast a handful of cashews or almonds until lightly brown, and scatter these over the rice before serving. Serve immediately! Serves 4.
Saffron and Fish
Above are photos of paella, left, and bouillabaisse, right, from Beatrice Peltre, a food writer and photographer par excellence who has kindly allowed me to raid her fascinating blog, La Tartine Gourmande, for photography showing the right intensity of saffron color in these two legendary Mediterranean dishes.
The affinity of saffron for fish is hardly a well kept secret. Even so, there is little agreement about how much saffron to use in these particular classics. I say, use your judgment, starting with about a gram — a big pinch — if you’re cooking paella for 4 to 6, half a gram for bouillabaisse. A paella involves chicken and sausage as well as shellfish — mussels usually, and often shrimp — with most of the saffron flavor concentrated in the rice. Bouillabaisse, like paella, started off as a rather humble dish — a fisherman’s stew. Both were originally cooked out of doors over an open fire. In making a bouillabaisse, one wants only enough saffron to give depth to the tomato-white wine-stock color, not to turn the liquid bright orange. In Bea’s bouillabaisse, you can easily see the threads, and they are a pretty touch in preparing all saffron fish dishes that are not haute cuisine. If you make a paella, remember it’s about the saffron. A bouillabaisse is a marriage of classical Mediterranean flavors, saffron only one of them.
My own recipes for both are rather too elaborate for anyone who is not paid to cook. They involve making lobster stock and passing it through a drum sieve. (You don’t want to know…) But for a first foray into the world of fish cookery with saffron, I have a recipe that pairs saffron and chard, a venerable combination in Provence, where, having fed the green bits of chard to hogs, farmers in olden times were looking for a way to dress up the stalks, which they themselves liked to eat.
TILAPIA with CHARD and SAFFRON
Rinse and cut into ribbons 1 bunch of chard per person for the number you intend to serve. Smash as many peeled garlic cloves as you have heads of chard. Thinly slice a big toe-size piece of peeled fresh ginger root. In a heavy-bottomed lidded skillet, sautee all this over medium heat with extra-virgin olive oil (X-V OO), adding vegetable stock or water as needed, and bearing in mind you want cooking liquid at the end. It will take about 15 minutes for the chard to become soft enough, with you stirring 5 or 6 times throughout, and otherwise keeping the lid on.
When it’s done, fish out the garlic cloves (you’re done with them, but leave in the ginger), remove the chard with a slotted spoon to a serving dish, and cover. Pour the liquid left in the cooking pan into a small bowl and set aside.
In a fresh splash of X-V OO in the same skillet, quickly sautee tilapia filets that have been dredged in cornmeal, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. They’ll only take about 2.5 minutes — 1.25 minutes per side for smallish filets.
Check to see if you can get any more liquid out of the chard — it’s probably released some. If so, add it to your small bowl of chard-cooking liquid. Arrange the tilapia on the bed of chard and cover to keep warm.
Tip the chard-cooking liquid from its bowl back into the skillet, and increase the heat to high. Pour in cream (half a cup to a cup, depending on number of people, use coconut milk if you don’t like dairy), and an infusion made a day ahead of saffron (about a gram) in one half a cup of good orange juice. Leave the threads in. You’ll have a really beautiful color, and you’ll need to cook this liquid down, stirring, till it can lightly coat a spoon. Taste for salt and pepper, and add a couple drops of orange flower water if you like. Spoon this over the tilapia filets, dust with chopped cilantro, and serve.
Saffron and Sweets
As the smashing photo of sugar crystals coated with saffron in a market in Iran suggests, saffron has unstoppable synergy with sweets. Until about 10 years ago, I questioned the validity of any dessert that was not chocolate, and if you do too, then saffron could be your true alternative. It marries beautifully with other flavorings used in sweets, such as cardamom, rosewater, fresh lime juice, almonds, ginger and cinnamon.
Combining some of these with saffron will tilt your desserts in a Middle Eastern to Central Asian direction — and that’s a good thing if you feel stuck in the European canon. If you want to punch up that European repertory, however, adding saffron to a souffle au Grand Marnier is a revelation. Likewise to a plain vanilla custard or to a lemon or orange mousse. The amount of liquid for an infusion — a tablespoon or so — will not throw off the chemistry of such recipes.
Baking with saffron is a tradition adored by the Swedish and the Germans, especially at Christmastime, and you’ll find lots of saffron in Cornish and Dutch baked goods. I’m not much of a baker, but I did create a saffron shortbread cookie made with cornmeal that I’m very proud of, that I would probably bake even if no one wanted to eat it — the aroma produced by baking with saffron could help you sell your house.
I’m currently developing a recipe for a saffron-lavender panna cotta — it’s almost up there, but not quite. Also, I’m reviving a plan of last summer, to create a sorbet of saffron and white tropical honey from Hawaii, which I intend to garnish with some Sicilian candied rose petals I know about. This week, for someone daring, I’m working up a saffron semifreddo, which I’ll drizzle with a hot sauce made of Valrhona chocolate melted in chai. Yes, it will be too much — but sometimes that’s the point.
Using saffron in ordinary desserts can be a newsy thing to do, too, and you won’t need to worry about learning an unfamiliar recipe or technique. For instance, a saffron infusion in your favorite rice pudding will dial it up many notches. If you’re bringing dessert to a party, you’ll get almost infinite mileage out of showing up with a tapioca pudding (please use large pearls) flavored with saffron, cardamom and rosewater. One of the very most social capital-enhancing things about using saffron when you cook for friends is that they’ll know you’ve done something lavish for them, but in fact you’ll have spent far less to make the dish in question special than if you’d treated them to a slightly better than usual bottle of wine.
So, what’s a ravishing yet easy saffron dessert? One that’s summery, and doesn’t ask you to hang over it like a lover all during the prep? Consider the avocado… In Brazil and Sri Lanka, they think the avocado is a dessert animal. Please try this for yourself! I have never fed it to anyone who didn’t want a subscription to it after the first bite, appalled as they might have been to contemplate it.
AVOCADO SAFFRON MOUSSE
For a mousse for 8, take 3 ripe avocados, peeled and seeded, and blend them in a processor or blender until smooth. Add in the juice of 4 fresh, fat limes, in which a big pinch of saffron has been infused for 8 hours or overnight. (Strain it!) Sift in 1.5 cups (taste to see if this is the right amount for you) of confectioner’s sugar. Because you are not adding heat, confectioner’s sugar is very important, as any other kind would stay grainy.
Puree everything until very smooth — avocado lumps are infelicitous. With a rubber scraper, remove this mixture to a large mixing bowl — glass or ceramic only. Fold in 1.5 cups of stiffly whipped cream, and chill for at least several hours. It will be a beautiful chartreuse color.
Serve very cold, with a few spoonfuls of tropical fruit and berries tossed with lime juice and a little sugar, honey or agave nectar. Garnish with fresh mint.
Saffron and Dollars
Many, many moons from now, readers happening onto this post and seeing its date, or turning it up through a search, will muse how they wish they’d known to buy saffron way back in the summer of 2008, because it has since become so much more expensive. The price of some things has nowhere to go but up. However, saffron has always, in legend and in history, been valued alongside gold, so modern times are not the problem. I would never blame anyone who, for reasons of principle or finance, just wasn’t interested to experience saffron. But the people who feel like that are probably not the people reading this post in its entirety. So I’m going to assume a certain level of interest in readers who have come this far, and actually set out the saffron math — with the caveat that the numbers at this writing will not for long be accurate. Also, the prices I’m quoting pertain to saffron threads, not powder.
A quick tour of retailers will be instructive. If you don’t live in a metropolitan area with easy access to stores run by Iranians and Indians, then you may already shop online for spices, and if so you know that Kalustyans.com and Penzeys.com are two of the best spice merchants you can find. Let’s see how fair a deal they’re offering on saffron, understanding that their mission is not to under-price other vendors, only to sell you a very high quality product. As it happens, neither Kalustyan’s nor Penzey’s is selling Iranian saffron at this time, only Kashmiri and Spanish.
So, you can buy 1 gram (a big pinch, the stigma from 190 flowers, enough to cook a dish for 4 to 6) of Kashmiri saffron at Kalustyan’s for $14.99, and 1 gram of Spanish saffron (they don’t say what grade) for $12.99. At Penzey’s you can buy 1 gram of Kashmiri saffron for $15.29, 1 gram of Spanish coupe for $10.89. Shoppers feeling more flush, but in fact getting a far better buy, can purchase 1 ounce (28.35 grams) of Spanish coupe from Penzey’s for $169.99, and 15 grams of Kashmiri saffron at Kalustyan’s for $89.99.
Now, here’s the better way. At Saffron, Vanilla Imports (www.saffron.com), you can buy 5 grams of high quality Iranian saffron for $17.95 — enough for five saffron dishes serving four to six people each. Scaling up, you can buy half an ounce — faintly over 14 grams — of high quality Iranian saffron for $38.95, and 1 ounce (28.35 grams) of same for $72.95. To put the priciest purchase in perspective, you could make 28 dinner parties for four to six people really special by spending $72.95. If you did have 28 dinner parties for four to six, that’s between 112 and 168 servings of something you’ve rendered astonishing for between 43 and 65 cents more per serving than you would have spent anyway. I think this is actually pretty good, and it would still be pretty good if you used twice the amount of saffron we’ve been talking about. You can see why I like shopping at Saffron, Vanilla Imports.
I like buying Baby Brand Kashmiri saffron, too. The math is not as persuasive, however. But the saffron is, and the math will not be a horrible shock now. To get 5 grams of Baby saffron threads is $35, to get 10 grams is $60, and to get 20 grams is $100. For the difference in price, does it go further so that one can use less? I don’t think it goes so much farther that it all evens out, but I believe the aroma is greater, and the taste meets different demands that are made on my kitchen. Remember, I am cooking, not working at the ISO.
It’s worth repeating that Saffron, Vanilla Imports in San Francisco and Baby Brand Saffron (through their US resellers, Sahar Saffron in Cleveland, OH) guarantee their products. I don’t know any other vendors who do. I’ve looked everywhere for the best values in saffron world, and I’ve found them.
Back to the Dutch, and Beyond
It’s time to take one last look at that lobster bigger than the poodle in the still life by Adriaen van Utrecht that may or may not depict saffron. In The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, Simon Schama tells us of the tensions produced in 17th century Amsterdam when nimiety in the way of material goods sat badly with a long-established ethic of thrift and virtue. The Dutch were suddenly so positioned as to have anything they could name from anywhere in the known world. Immediately, they began ascribing sinfulness to certain new substances, candied fruit being high on that list. Saffron had been known in the days before super-prosperity was achieved, so it did not quite qualify as a gruesome luxury.
Dutch painting of the 17th century illuminates a question as familiar to us as it was then to the newly prosperous Dutch: has superabundance no moral dimension? Paintings such as this still life both celebrate and condemn the expanding sensual world, so full of the transient beauty that distracts without sustaining, but that so delights us. Should all such temptation be resisted? Or can one give in, while retaining moral fiber? If yes, then how? We too know that struggle, that makes it impossible to think of the rarest and most wondrous substances without ambivalence.
But the Dutch, as usual, are far ahead of us in matters saffron, and in such matters of virtue that can ever attach to saffron. According to the Dutch Embassy in Kabul, this autumn farmers in Uruzgan Province should be reaping their first full saffron harvest, thanks to a project set up by the Netherlands to train Afghans in raising a premium crop that will make a real alternative to opium poppies. It’s an initiative to make a Golden Age Calvinist proud.
SELECTED RESOURCES for this Post
Sometimes, you write what you wish you could more simply have read. Time was, I could have used a one-stop resource on the culinary aspect of saffron. If you know anybody who could use the same thing, please send them the link to this post. If you read something here you believe not to be accurate, please write to me with information you think is better.
Persian Saffron: Saffron, Vanilla Imports, San Francisco, CA http://www.saffron.com
Kashmiri Saffron: Baby Brand Saffron http://www.babysaffron.com/
Unfortunately, there is no well written, accurate, entirely up-to-date book about saffron, with instructive and alluring visuals, superb recipes and a convincing bibliography. Each of the books below, written within the last 20 years, meets some of those criteria, however.
The Essential Saffron Companion, by John Humphries, 1998
Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World’s Most Seductive Spice, by Pat Willard, 2002
Wild About Saffron: A Contemporary Guide to an Ancient Spice, by Ellen Szita, 1987
Good reading about the spice trade
Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner, 2005
Stimulating and reliable cookbooks to take you outside the Euro-American box
A Taste of Persia: An Introduction to Persian Cooking, by Najmieh Batmanglij, 1999
Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon, by Claudia Roden, 2006
Invitation to Mediterranean Cooking, by Claudia Roden, 2001
The Complete Asian Cookbook, by Charmaine Solomon, 1992 (Has a very good section on Mughlai cuisine.)
Art and excess
The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama, 1987
The Wikipedia saffron page — Teutonically thorough and accurate, but not very foody. Tragic photos of saffron dishes.
Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages — Through the University of Graz, Katzer has put up the most comprehensive spice guide on the Web. It’s more oriented to botany and etymology than to cooking, however. Still, it’s a staggering resource for cooks, and one wishes his taxonomania extended far across the edible world.
The Cooking Inn — Author and saffron expert Ellen Szita with excellent info and recipes, although the pricing guidelines are out of date.
Amanda Hesser wrote this article about saffron for the New York times almost 10 years ago — it’s still highly pertinent, and explores the then-budding question whether Persian or Kashmiri saffron is best.
Elaine Sciolino wrote in the New York Times Travel Section, last year, about this fascinating new spice emporium in Paris. More Pushali saffron from Iran than you are otherwise likely to see in one room in the West.
The BBC looks inside the saffron industry in Kashmir — an oldie but a goodie. You’ll learn what they do with the petals.
The Trade & Environment Database (TED) at American University case study on Iranian saffron.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a beautifully organized and instructive site for anyone who wants to OD on Dutch still life painting, and much else besides.
About 3600 years ago, saffron was a component in perfume. I found out it is once more, in a scent from L’Artisan Parfumeur, Safran Troublant, by Olivia Giacobetti. I wear it to bed, just for myself and my poodle, because it’s voluptuous yet peaceful too. Read about it in a glorious new book, Perfumes: The Guide,(2008), by Luca Turin, a biophysicist, and Tania Sanchez. This book will start you using your olfactory imagination like nothing else you can read. The prodigious Luca Turin writes a column for the Neue Zurcher Zeitung that you can read in English.
Special thanks to Bea of La Tartine Gourmande. For food photography on the Web, nobody can match her precision and naturalism. Visit her blog and her Flickr Photostream for more definitive food and travel photography.