Saffron is a spice commonly used in Mediterranean cuisine. It’s known for its subtly sweet-herby aroma and slightly bitter taste. Often referred to as “red gold”, the spice is notoriously known to be the world’s most expensive spice. With prices ranging anywhere from R75 per gram, to R150 per gram, we can’t help but ask, why is saffron so expensive?
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Its uses trace back to ancient Greece and Rome, where it was used as a perfume. It was also used to scent baths, houses, and temples. Cleopatra famously used saffron in her baths to give her skin a beautiful colour. Today, the herb is mostly used as a cooking spice and clothing dye. Despite its price, the spice is a common feature in Mediterranean, Iranian, and South Asian cuisines. Popular dishes that use saffron include French bouillabaisse, Spanish paella, Iranian tahdig, and Moroccan tagines.
The reason for saffron’s costliness has to do with its harvesting. Only a small amount of each saffron flower is used, and all of it has to be done by hand. When we hear saffron, we typically think of the spice and not the flower. The flower is presumed to be native to Iran. However, research varies, with some claiming that it’s native to Greece. The spice is made only using a small part of the flower called the stigmata, the pollen-germinating part of the plant.
Since each flower only has three stigmata, it takes 35 000 saffron flowers to make one kilogram of saffron spice. Once the stigmata have been picked from the plant, they are dried to preserve their colour and flavour. The small amount of saffron spice per plant, combined with the fact that all harvesting must be done by hand, makes saffron the most expensive spice.
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Written by Kaylum Keet for BONA.
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