The spice Saffron is valued worldwide for its flavor, aroma and color. I’ve just broadcast an interview with Robin Young produced by Jill Ryan for NPR’s Here and Now program which let me tell you something about my enjoyment of saffron both as a consumer and scientist.
Saffron is unusual in that it is equally at home in savory or sweet dishes, and as a drink made with hot water or cold vodka. Saffron is the most valuable agricultural product in the world: in a typical store, the weight of one penny (one cent piece, about 2.5g or a bit under a tenth of an ounce) will cost almost $25. That weight will come from about 200 flowers! But you only need a few strands per serving, costing a few cents – and most people who have enjoyed the real thing will be sure that it is worth it.
Saffron spice is the stigmas of the saffron Crocus flower: the three bright orange strands that normally capture the pollen. All flowers have these stigmas, but the saffron crocus is unique in having stigmas with the sensory values. The whole flowers are picked, and the individual strands separated and dried. Different countries use slightly different drying temperatures and conditions, as well as soils and altitude, so saffron can vary in colour and aroma. Much is produced on family farms, and the whole family will be involved in picking from the early morning to drying later in the day. Most of the world’s saffron – something like 150 tons per year – is produced in Iran, where the climate and soils are favorable, as well as having people to pick by hand and separate the spice. Other saffron is produced in Kashmir (India/China/Pakistan border region), Greece and Spain, with smaller amounts from growers in many other countries.
Unfortunately, with such a high value product, fraud is an problem. Many types of fraud are possible: you can have the saffron repackaged so it looks like it comes from one country when it was actually produced elsewhere. Much worse though, is where the fraudsters copy the look or color. They will use things like corn silks or jute rope fibres, and colour from plants like safflower (a type of thistle) or tumeric (a type of ginger), or even synthetic dyes like Sudan yellow. As a consumer, you can look carefully at the saffron strands and check they look like the real thing. Smelling might be a problem where it is packaged, and shops would be less keen on tasting too, but you will soon recognize the flower petal-vanilla smell and tartly, slightly peppery taste. Be suspicious of buying powdered saffron, or if the price is too low: it can be kept for at least a couple of years, and nobody will pick hundreds of flowers for a few cents. Look for origin marks on packaging, and the reputation of the company selling it. We recently looked at 10 samples of saffron from supermarkets and those sold in small prepacks with clear labelling were all saffron. Those in packets with unclear labels or mentioning safflower and ‘saffron rice color’ had no aroma and were not saffron.
My scientific laboratory is part of the Saffronomics project. We are a consortium ranging from growers and producers through traders to scientists. As a group, we are developing ways to detect fraud in saffron, ranging from DNA and gene expression studies through to optical spectroscopy and isotope-ratio mass spectrometry. My own lab is interested in the diversity of the saffron crop – there is very little at the genetic level – and the origin from it’s closest wild relatives, some of the Crocuses which are often grown in gardens. The saffron crocus itself is sterile because it has three sets of chromosomes rather than the two of fertile plants and animals. We are also interested in development of high-value agricultural products and crops contributing to sustainable rural livelihoods. We have had several collaborations with researchers from Iran and I have much appreciated their input into our biodiversity and molecular genome studies. I am happy their farmers will have the chance now to export saffron to the US and hope development of this market will let new people enjoy the flavor and aroma of saffron.