It takes 165 crocus flowers to make just one gram of saffron spice. Saffron is the stigma, or female flower part of the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus. The large numbers of flowers needed plus the high labor costs of carefully picking just that part from the flower make it the most expensive spice in the world. Saffron is currently selling for between $4.00 and $17.00 per gram, depending on quality, with the world’s finest saffron generally coming from the La Mancha area of Spain. But you can grow your own!
Iran is the world’s biggest grower of saffron, followed by Kashmir and Spain but it’s also grown in Italy and Greece. These countries all have a Mediterranean climate with hot,dry summers and cool to cold wet winters. Saffron has been known and used for thousands of years, both in food and as a fabric dye and has long been associated with the wealthiest classes. The word saffron comes from the Arabic word for yellow.
You need a cool Mediterranean climate to grow saffron (Zones 6, 7 and 8, and drier Zone 9). In Australia, that’s Tasmania, western Victoria, elevated parts of South Australia and areas of western NSW. You’re not likely to be successful in areas of high summer humidity or rainfall, like most of the Australian east coast. Saffron crocus is grown commercially in Tasmania, but its output is only a blip on the world’s commercial market of true saffron.
Saffron corms will be available to buy during their dormant period in summer (June to September in the northern hemisphere, and December to April in the southern hemisphere). Plant the bulbs about 5cm (2 inches) deep, preferably in full sun (or somewhere that will be sunny during the autumn/fall flowering period) and make sure the soil drains well. In warmer and temperate climates you need to put buckets of ice on the bulbs every night during winter to give them sufficient winter chilling. That seems an awful lot of effort!
Saffron produces flowers in autumn/fall with a beautiful light purple flower, which lasts a few weeks. The leaves only appear after flowering. The corms will gradually multiply so you can lift and divide them after about 5 years to increase your crop.
When the flowers are fully opened, you can carefully remove the stigmas from the flowers using tweezers, or harvest the whole flower if you have a bigger crop. Harvesting the flowers is real back-breaking work as the plants are very small. Then there’s the delicate operation to remove the 3 dark red stigmas from each flower – the flower is then discarded as it has no commercial value.
Dry the stigmas in a dehydrator or on a fine mesh rack in a cool oven (50-60 degrees C) for about 15 minutes. Store saffron in an air-tight container in a dark place. However you will need a couple of hundred plants to get your 1 gram of saffron threads!
Saffron has a very distinct almost woody flavour, and is a real appetite stimulant but you have to be careful not to use too much or you can create a bitter taste. 12-20 good quality ‘threads’ (stigmas) are quite enough for one cup of rice.
Infuse the saffron in tepid water for 10-15 minutes before you use it to bring out the colour and flavour and then tip the stigmas and the coloured water into your dish. This is the moment when you might discover you’ve got fake saffron if the colour diffuses instantly rather than taking 10 minutes or more, and is very red rather than a golden yellow. The fake threads will also disintegrate when you handle them, unlike the more robust real saffron. If you have a great recipe using saffron, write in and tell us about it.
[In Australia, even though it’s winter, you can still buy saffron as potted up seedlings from Four Seasons Herbs online]