Saffron is called azafran in Spanish and is a spice that has a special place in history, always being considered very valuable. In fact, at one point it was even used as currency. In ancient Greece women used it as a cosmetic; the Roman Emperor Nero had the streets covered with it for his parades; Phoenicians made veils of it for their brides and Buddhists used it to dye their robes.
Saffron is not originally from Spain, but came from Asia Minor. The Moors brought saffron or “az-zafaran” as they called it, to Spain in the VIII or IX century. Today almost three-quarters of the world’s production of saffron is grown in Spain, specifically in the region of Castilla-La Mancha. There is a Denomination of Origin for saffron in La Mancha, which was established in 2001. Spanish saffron is prized for its high quality, and commands twice the price of saffron produced in Iran, for example.
The Harvest and Drying of Saffron
Saffron is a very delicate spice that is actually the tiny red stigma in the center of the purple crocus flower. Each bulb produces 2-3 flowers. The plants bloom in October and November and must be harvested within a day or they lose their flavor. The harvest is fleeting - lasting only about 10 days and is still done entirely by hand! The flowers are collected by the farmers and then, passed along to the women of the area, who sit at long tables to separate the red stigmas from the rest of the flower. Next, the stigmas are roasted to dry them.
It was traditional for the farming families to reserve some of the saffron, using it as a sort of savings account. Keep in mind that it takes about 200 crocus flowers to make 1 gram of saffron. Combined with the hand-picking of the flowers, you can see why it is so expensive! To give you an idea of how much a gram of saffron is, the small box pictured here is about 3 inches by 2 inches and weighs only 2 grams!
Buying and Storing Saffron
We recommend that you purchase true saffron threads, not ground powder. This way you can be sure you are purchasing saffron and not some cheap substitute! We also recommend that you store it in a cool, dry place. It will keep 2 or 3 years, which is good because you’ll only need about half an ounce or a few threads for 4-6 servings.
Spanish Recipes Using Saffron
- Paella de Marisco - Spanish Seafood Rice
- Paella Valenciana - Spanish Rice
- Paella Vegetariana - Vegetarian Paella (Rice)
- Fish and Clams in Garlic Wine Sauce
The source for much of the information contained in this article was "Culinaria Spain" a beautiful coffee-table book written by Marion Trutter, and published in English in 1999 by Konemann.