I was so pleased to watch this report on CNN’s Eatocracy blog this morning (watch the video here). In one Afghan province, farmers are bravely turning their backs on opium poppy cultivation, one of the key funding sources for the Taliban. Instead, they have chosen a new path cultivating a legal, rare and precious spice– saffron.
Saffron is the most expensive of all spices, harvested from the stigma of the crocus flower. Originally from W. Asia and Persia, the spice has been cultivated in Southern Europe since antiquity. Saffron has a beautiful orange-red color; when cooked or used as a dye, it produces a vivid yellow hue that is lovely to behold. It is a pungent, bitter spice with a strong odor, and you only need a small amount of it to flavor a dish. In small quantities, it adds an unmistakable and delicious flavor that I absolutely adore. It also has health benefits, and has been used medicinally for centuries. Saffron is full of antioxidants and vitamin B2; it is also being studied as a potential treatment for depression.
It takes 70,000 crocus flowers to create a single pound of saffron. The thread-like spice is worth its weight in gold; the retail price for good quality can be as high as $5,000 per pound. Beware of imitations– grocery stores sell plastic bags of a spice called safflower, or American saffron. The spice looks remarkably similar to saffron, but the flavor is nothing like the real thing. True saffron comes in very small packages with the source labeled, and can cost upwards of $8 for a very small quantity. It’s best to do your homework before purchasing!
I’m very happy that Afghan farmers see a future in this wonderful spice. I adore saffron, though I try not to use it very often because it is so pricey. I’ve linked to a few of my favorite saffron recipes below. Do you like cooking with saffron? Do you avoid it because of the price? Do you think it’s truly worth its weight in gold?
Saffron Recipes to Try