Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the “saffron crocus”. The vivid crimson stigma and styles, called threads, are collected and dried for use mainly as a seasoning and colouring agent in food. Saffron has long been the world’s most costly spice by weight. Although some doubts remain on its origin, it is believed that saffron originated in Iran.However, Greece and Mesopotamia have also been suggested as the possible region of origin of this plant: Harold McGee states that it was domesticated in or near Greece during the Bronze Age. C. sativus is possibly a triploid form of Crocus cartwrightianus, which is also known as “wild saffron”.Saffron crocus slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia and was later brought to parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania.
Saffron’s taste and iodoform-like or hay-like fragrance result from the phytochemicals picrocrocin and safranal.It also contains a carotenoid pigment, crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles. Its recorded history is attested in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical treatise, and has been traded and used for over thousands of years. In the 21st century, Iran produces some 90% of the world total for saffron.At US $5,000 per kg or higher, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice.
A degree of uncertainty surrounds the origin of the English word “saffron”. It might stem from the 12th-century Old French term safran, which comes from the Latin word safranum, from the Arabic za’farān, which comes from the Persian word zarparan meaning “gold strung” (implying either the golden stamens of the flower or the golden color it creates when used as flavor).
The domesticated saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is an autumn-flowering perennial plant unknown in the wild. It probably descends from the eastern Mediterranean autumn-flowering Crocus cartwrightianus which is also known as “wild saffron” and originated in Crete or Central Asia. C. thomasii and C. pallasii are other possible sources. As a genetically monomorphic clone, it slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia.
It is a sterile triploid form, which means that three homologous sets of chromosomes make up each specimen’s genetic complement; C. sativus bears eight chromosomal bodies per set, making for 24 in total. Being sterile, the purple flowers of C. sativus fail to produce viable seeds; reproduction hinges on human assistance: clusters of corms, underground, bulb-like, starch-storing organs, must be dug up, divided, and replanted. A corm survives for one season, producing via this vegetative division up to ten “cormlets” that can grow into new plants in the next season. The compact corms are small, brown globules that can measure as large as 5 cm (2 in) in diameter, have a flat base, and are shrouded in a dense mat of parallel fibres; this coat is referred to as the “corm tunic”. Corms also bear vertical fibres thin and net-like, that grow up to 5 cm (2 in) above the plant’s neck.
The plant sprouts 5–11 white and non-photosynthetic leaves known as cataphylls. These membrane-like structures cover and protect 5 to 11 true leaves as they bud and develop on the crocus flower. The latter are thin, straight, and blade-like green foliage leaves, which are 1–3 mm (0.04–0.12 in), in diameter, which either expand after the flowers have opened (“hysteranthous”) or do so simultaneously with their blooming (“synanthous”). C. sativus cataphylls are suspected by some to manifest prior to blooming when the plant is irrigated relatively early in the growing season. Its floral axes, or flower-bearing structures, bear bracteoles, or specialised leaves, that sprout from the flower stems; the latter are known as pedicels. After aestivating in spring, the plant sends up its true leaves, each up to 40 cm (16 in) in length. Only in October, after most other flowering plants have released their seeds, do its brilliantly hued flowers develop; they range from a light pastel shade of lilac to a darker and more striated mauve. The flowers possess a sweet, honey-like fragrance. Upon flowering, the plants are 20–30 cm (8–12 in) in height and bear up to four flowers. A three-pronged style 25–30 mm (1.0–1.2 in) in length, emerges from each flower. Each prong terminates with a vivid crimson stigma, which are the distal end of a carpel.
Saffron is not all of the same quality and strength. Strength is related to several factors including the amount of style picked along with the red stigma. Age of the saffron is also a factor. More style included means the saffron is less strong gram for gram because the colour and flavour are concentrated in the red stigmas. Saffron from Iran, Spain and Kashmir is classified into various grades according to the relative amounts of red stigma and yellow styles it contains. Grades of Iranian saffron are: “sargol” (red stigma tips only, strongest grade), “pushal” or “pushali” (red stigmas plus some yellow style, lower strength), “bunch” saffron (red stigmas plus large amount of yellow style, presented in a tiny bundle like a miniature wheatsheaf) and “konge” (yellow style only, claimed to have aroma but with very little, if any, colouring potential). Grades of Spanish saffron are “coupé” (the strongest grade, like Iranian sargol), “mancha” (like Iranian pushal), and in order of further decreasing strength “rio”, “standard” and “sierra” saffron. The word “mancha” in the Spanish classification can have two meanings: a general grade of saffron or a very high quality Spanish-grown saffron from a specific geographical origin. Real Spanish-grown La Mancha saffron has PDO protected status and this is displayed on the product packaging. Spanish growers fought hard for Protected Status because they felt that imports of Iranian saffron re-packaged in Spain and sold as “Spanish Mancha saffron” were undermining the genuine La Mancha brand. Similar was the case in Kashmir where imported Iranian saffron is mixed with local saffron and sold as “Kashmir brand” at a higher price. In Kashmir, saffron is mostly classified into two main categories called “mongra” (stigma alone) and “lachha” (stigmas attached with parts of the style). Countries producing less saffron do not have specialised words for different grades and may only produce one grade. Artisan producers in Europe and New Zealand have offset their higher labour charges for saffron harvesting by targeting quality, only offering extremely high-grade saffron.
In addition to descriptions based on how the saffron is picked, saffron may be categorized under the international standard ISO 3632 after laboratory measurement of crocin (responsible for saffron’s colour), picrocrocin (taste), and safranal (fragrance or aroma) content. However, often there is no clear grading information on the product packaging and little of the saffron readily available in the UK is labelled with ISO category. This lack of information makes it hard for customers to make informed choices when comparing prices and buying saffron.
Under ISO 3632, determination of non-stigma content (“floral waste content”) and other extraneous matter such as inorganic material (“ash”) are also key. Grading standards are set by the International Organization for Standardization, a federation of national standards bodies. ISO 3632 deals exclusively with saffron and establishes three categories: III (poorest quality), II, and I (finest quality). Formerly there was also category IV, which was below category III. Samples are assigned categories by gauging the spice’s crocin and picrocrocin content, revealed by measurements of specific spectrophotometric absorbance. Safranal is treated slightly differently and rather than there being threshold levels for each category, samples must give a reading of 20–50 for all categories.
These data are measured through spectrophotometry reports at certified testing laboratories worldwide. Higher absorbances imply greater levels of crocin, picrocrocin and safranal, and thus a greater colouring potential and therefore strength per gram. The absorbance reading of crocin is known as the “colouring strength” of that saffron. Saffron’s colouring strength can range from lower than 80 (for all category IV saffron) up to 200 or greater (for category I). The world’s finest samples (the selected, most red-maroon, tips of stigmas picked from the finest flowers) receive colouring strengths in excess of 250, making such saffron over three times more powerful than category IV saffron. Market prices for saffron types follow directly from these ISO categories. Sargol and coupé saffron would typically fall into ISO 3632 category I. Pushal and Mancha would probably be assigned to category II. On many saffron packaging labels, neither the ISO 3632 category nor the colouring strength (the measurement of crocin content) is displayed.
However, many growers, traders, and consumers reject such lab test numbers. Some people prefer a more holistic method of sampling batches of threads for taste, aroma, pliability, and other traits in a fashion similar to that practiced by experienced wine tasters. However, ISO 3632 grade and colouring strength information allow consumers to make instant comparisons between the quality of different saffron brands, without needing to purchase and sample the saffron. In particular, consumers can work out a value for money based on price per unit of colouring strength rather than price per gram, given the wide possible range of colouring strengths that different kinds of saffron can have.
Grades and Types of Persian Saffron:
World Top Saffron Producers:
Saffron in other languages: (Crocus Sativus)
Arabic – Za´faran
Estonian – Safrankrookus
German – Safran
Indonesian – Kunyit kering
Portuguese – Acafrao
Russian – Shafran
Finnish – Sahrami
Swedish – Saffran
Dutch – Saffraan
Norwegian – Safran
Japanese – Safuran
French – Safran
Greek – Zaforá
Icelandic – Saffran
Hindi – Kesar / Zafraan
Italian – Zaffarano / Zafferano
Chinese – Fan hung hua
Spanish – Azafrán
Swahili – Zafarani
Latin – Safranum
Georgian – Zaprana
Japanese: Safuran (#サフラン)
Chineese: Zànghónghuā (#藏红花 or #藏紅花)
Russian: Shafran (#шафран)
Greek: Krókos (#κρόκος)
Hindi: Kesar (#केसर)