I'm Just Mad about Saffron
By Kurma Dasa
upon a time, Hermes, the messenger of the gods accidentally gave
his friend Crocos a mortal wound. The blood that flowed sprinkled
on the ground, and
wherever the blood dropped, a saffron crocus plant grew in its place.
This, according to Greek mythology, is where saffron came from.
Saffron is the name given to the three dried, red coloured stigmas
(stigmata) and part of the white style to which they are
attached, of Crocus Sativus Linnaeus, a cultivated, autumn-blooming,
purple-flowered crocus and a member of the Iris family (iridacea).
Saffron’s history is extraordinarily long, way beyond the
scope of this little essay, and its precise origin is unknown, long
before the dawn of recorded history.
When the plants bloom briefly in autumn, the brilliant stigmas
(the flower parts that collect pollen) are hand picked just as the
plants open in the early morning. It takes about 210,000 stigmas,
picked from about 70,000 flowers, to yield half a kilo of saffron.
If that all sounds too staggering to comprehend, let’s put
it another way: one decent-sized bunch of crocus flowers yields
enough saffron to flavour a saffron rice dish for four.
Understandably, the cost of saffron is very high, and saffron is
the world’s most expensive spice; and, what’s more,
it’s even costlier than gold.
After picking, saffron is dried in sieves over low heat, then stored
immediately. The final product is a compressed, highly aromatic,
matted mass of narrow thread-like, dark-orange to reddish-brown
strands about 2.5cm long.
The taste of saffron is pleasantly spicy, earthy, slightly bitter-sweet,
with honey overtones, and is detected at the back of the palate.
This flavour component of saffron is called picrocrocin.
Saffron has such a potent colouring power that one part of its
colouring component crocin (C44 H64 O24) is capable of colouring
up to 150,000 parts of water an unmistakable yellow colour. The
old Arabic word for yellow, by the way, is Za’ faran.
And as far as saffron’s third, and I think most important
attribute is concerned, this is called safranal, which gives
saffron its pungent, tenacious aroma principle.
It is this versatile trinity of actions, as an aromatic, a flavouring
agent and a colourant which to my mind distinguishes saffron from
all other culinary ingredients. Saffron even has nutritive value,
being one of the richest sources of Riboflavin, Vitamin B2.
Saffron has enjoyed immense popularity throughout the world for
centuries as a drug, a dye, a perfume, and as a kitchen flavour.
Cleopatra used a saffron wash to keep her skin clear and free from
blemishes. In it’s hey-day in sixteenth century England, over
one-third of recipes included saffron. Although it went out of favour
in England as a culinary ingredient, Saffron Walden, not far from
where I was born, still bears its name.
A rare characteristic of saffron is that specimens collected from
around the world are identical, which suggests a common source for
the saffron crocus. Although it has been known by several names
other than Crocus Sativus Linnaeus, all are the same plant.
Another unusual characteristic of saffron is that it is a spice
produced by the sex organs, albeit sterile, of a flower.
Spain is the world’s leading producer and exporter of saffron,
and accounts for about 70% of the world’s market. About
40 tonnes are produced there yearly, from a staggering 6 billion
saffron crocus plants. Saffron is also grown commercially in
Iran, the world’s second largest grower, followed by Kashmir.
Smaller yields are also grown in Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland,
New Zealand and now even in the lush Huon valley south of Hobart,
in Tasmania, Australia’s southern-most island state.
Remember, there is no such thing as cheap saffron. Genuine saffron
should have a characteristically strong and pleasant, slightly iodinated
aroma. And when a pinch of the genuine article is placed on the
surface of warm water, the stigma expands immediately and the colour
diffuses slowly. In artificially coloured material, the colour diffuses
I love using saffron, and try to keep a good supply in my spice
cupboard. Of course, that’s only a few grams. The king of
the gods Zeus apparently lies down on a whole bed of the stuff.
Oh well – I can dream.
English Saffron Cake
Tinted marigold yellow with saffron threads, this English bread
was a favourite for tea in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
in Cornwall and the south-west of England. In the Victorian period,
cooks called it “cake” rather than bread, but it was
cooked as bread or buns. It is highly delicious with a prominent
heady flavour from the saffron infusion. Note that this bread dries
out quite quickly, so eat it fresh, although it can be toasted.
The recipe calls for plaiting of the loaf rather than using a
bread tin. Because of the loaf’s intricate shape and the fact
that it is baked “free-standing”, be sure to use
a strong bread flour. As far as plaiting is concerned, if you have
ever plaited hair, you’ll get it first time. If not, try practising
with three tightly rolled-up tea towels on the kitchen table. If
you can’t get it, just make a solid loaf. It will still taste
2 teaspoons saffron thread, ground and soaked in a little hot
water for 1 hour
1/3 cup boiling water
½ cup butter
4–4½ cups unbleached plain bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons dried yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup warm milk
¼ cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground caraway seeds
½ teaspoon cinnamon powder
½ teaspoon mace powder
8 cloves, powdered
1 1/3 cups currants
For the Glaze
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water
¼ teaspoon lemon juice
Combine the saffron, butter and boiling water. Set aside.
Sift the flour and salt together in a large bowl. In another
bowl, combine the warm milk, yeast and sugar. Set aside in a warm
place for 10 minutes, or until the mixture is frothy.
Combine the saffron mixture with the frothy yeast mixture.
Add the buttermilk, nutmeg, caraway, mace and cloves powder. Whisk
in 2 cups of flour and combine until very smooth. Gradually stir
in enough of the remaining flour to make a soft dough. Knead the
dough on a lightly floured surface for about 10 minutes, or until
smooth and elastic. Shape the dough into a ball and set it aside,
covered for 1½ hours, or until doubled in size.
Punch down the dough, roll it on a lightly floured surface
into a 10 inch circle. Sprinkle evenly with the currants, fold the
edges towards the centre to form a ball, working the currants into
the ball. Rest the dough for 10 minutes.
Divide the mixture into thirds. Shape each third into a
14-inch rope. Place the ropes side by side on a large baking sheet.
Beginning at one end, braid the dough, tightly interweaving the
pieces without stretching them. Pinch the ends of the strands together,
and tuck them under. Leave the loaf to rise again, covered with
wax paper for one hour or until doubled in size.
Heat the sugar and water together for the glaze in a small
saucepan. Boil 1 minute, remove from the heat, and add the lemon
Pre-heat the oven to 210 C/410 F.
Bake the bread in the centre of the oven for 10 minutes.
Then reduce the heat to 195 C/ 385 F and bake for another 20 minutes,
or until the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.
Remove the bread from the baking sheet and place it on
a wire rack. While the bread is hot, brush it all over with the
sugar glaze. Cool and serve.
From "Cooking with Kurma"
by Kurma Dasa
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