What is saffron? | History and Legend | Cultivation | Qualities


Saffron is a spice obtained from the stigmas of the flower of Crocus sativus Linnaeus, commonly known as Rose of Saffron.

Crocus sativus Linnaeus belongs to the family of Iridaceae and it is characterized for having a purple flower with red stigmas and yellow stamens.

 


The flower of Crocus sativus Linnaeus is sterile, because it is an hybrid that has been maintained for centuries because of the value of its stigmas. The reproduction of this plant is done with bulbs.

Each flower of Crocus sativus Linnaeus has three stigmas of saffron, also called filaments, which are joined by the style.

The stigmas are of trumpet shape, they are bright red gradually changing to yellow in the style.

 


What is saffron? | History and Legend | Cultivation | Qualities


Although the origins of saffron are confusing, we can almost confirm that it comes from Orient, because its cultivation was widely spread in Minor Asia far before the birth of Christ.

One of the first historic references to the use of saffron comes from Ancient Egypt , where it was used by Cleopatra and other Pharaons as an aromatic and seductive essence, and to make ablutions in temples and sacred places.

 

Saffron was also highly appreciated in the Classic Greece for its coloring and aromatic properties. It was used as a remedy to sleeplessness and to reduce hangovers caused by wine. It was also used to perfume bathing and as an aphrodisiac.

Arabs used saffron in medicine for its anaesthetic properties. It was the Arabs who introduced the cultivation of saffron in Spain in the X century. Evidence of different kinds assure that saffron was an irreplaceable ingredient in the hispanic-arabic cooking of that age.

During the Middle Age, saffron became well known in Great Britain. The legend says that, in the period of Edward III, a pilgrim brought a bulb of saffron hidden in a hole in his stick from Middle East to the town of Walden. There the bulb was grown and reproduced giving prosperity to the town.

During the Renaissance, Venice stood out as the most important commercial center for saffron. In that period saffron was worth its weight in gold, and even today it is still the most expensive spice in the world. But sadly its high price led to its adulteration, which then was often severely punished. Henry VIII, who cherished the aroma of saffron, even condemned to death adulterers of saffron.

Nowadays saffron forms part of the culinary culture of different regions in the world:

  • In India saffron is an indispensable ingredient in many recipes of rice, sweets and ice-creams. It is used in Ayurvedic medicine and in religious rituals.
  • In Saudi Arabia, a real Arabic coffee should have saffron and cardamom.
  • In the North of Italy and South of Switzerland, saffron is essential in the preparation of its famous Risotto.
  • In Sweden it is a traditional to bake saffron bread on the day of St. Lucile.
  • Finally, in Spain saffron is an indispensable ingredient in such famous dishes as Paella, Fabada or Pote Gallego.


 


What is saffron? | History and Legend | Cultivation | Qualities


The cultivation of saffron needs an extreme climate; hot and dry weather in summer and cold in winter.

The land must be dry, calcareous, aired, flat and without trees. Attributes that the Meseta of Castilla-La Mancha has, which has made it one of the most important production areas in the world.


The soil must be equilibrated in organic material in order to avoid risks of erosion, and have some depth that allows the water to drain so that the bulb is not damaged.

 


The sowing takes place in the months of June and July. The bulbs are placed in ridges of about 20 cm. depth. The distance between the bulbs should be of 10 cm.

The sowing of bulbs is a very hard job because it is done by hand, and forces you to walk in a bent position for hundreds of yards. A mule follows the sower with a roman plough to cover the ridges.

The harvesting takes place between the end of October-beginning of November. The rose of saffron blooms at dawn and should stay the least possible time in the plant because it withers quickly and the stigmas loose color and aroma. This is why they are gathered between dawn and 10 a.m.

Once the flowers are gathered, stigmas are separated from the rest of the flower. The fact that more than 85.000 flowers are needed to obtain just one kilo of saffron gives us an idea of how hard this work is.

 


The stigmas of saffron have a high level of moisture, so it is necessary to dry them for its good preservation. This is the process of roasting, in which the stigmas get it definitive aspect: bright red, rigid and without wrinkles.


After the process of roasting, the stigmas of saffron would have 1/5 of their original size. This means that for one kg of raw stigmas we will obtain 200 g of saffron ready for consumption.

For its perfect preservation, saffron is stored in big wooden trunks lined with metal plate inside protecting it from heat, cold and specially moisture.

 

What is saffron? | History and Legend | Cultivation | Qualities

 


The I.S.O. (International Standard Organization) defines in its norm 3632-2 1994 the different qualities of saffron in filaments and powder based in their chemical properties. This is gathered in the following table:

 

CHARACTERISTICS
REQUIREMENTS
TEST METHOD
 
Saffron threads
Saffron powder
 
Moisture and volatile matter, % (m/m), max.
12
10
ISO 3632-2 CLAUSE 9
Total ash, % (m/m) on dry basis, max.
8
8
ISO 928 & ISO 3632-2 CLAUSE 10
Acid-insoluble ash, % (m/m), on dry basis, max.
Categories I & II
Categories III



1.0
1.5



1.0
1.5
ISO 930 & ISO 3632-2 CLAUSE 11
Solubility in cold water, %(m/m), on dry basis, max.
65
65
ISO 941
Bitterness, expressed as direct reading of the absorbance of picrocrocine at about 257 nm, on dry basis, min.
Categorie I
Categorie II
Categorie III 




70
55
40
 
ISO 3632-2 CLAUSE 13
Safranal, expressed as direct reading of the absorbance at about 330 nm, on dry basis. All categories
Min.
Max.





20
50
 
ISO 3632-2 CLAUSE 13
Colouring strength, expressed as direct reading of the absorbance of crocine at about 440 nm, on dry basis, min.
Categorie I
Categorie II
Categorie III




190
150
100




190
150
100
ISO 3632-2 CLAUSE 13
Total nitrogen, % (m/m), on dry basis, max.
3.0
3.0
ISO 1871
Crude fibre, % (m/m), on dry basis, max.
6
6
ISO 5498