guide to saffron .

guide to saffron .

Saffron may not be the most popular spice around or the spice that is used most frequently in the kitchen, but it is definitely the most expensive spice on the planet. 
Native to the Mediterranean region, primarily Greece and Spain, as well as Southwest Asia, saffron is used in a number of southern European dishes, such as Spain's national dish, the "paella Valenciana" or the French bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew from Marseille. Nevertheless, saffron is probably even more favoured in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine.

The saffron plant
Saffron is obtained from the saffron crocus, a flower that has lilac coloured petals. If you look at the crocus close up, you will notice that there are three orange strands in the centre of the flower. These strands or stigmas as they are also known are the un-dried saffron strands that we use in cooking. The saffron stigmas can only be picked by hand in order to remove them from the plant. It takes 225,000 to make up 1 lb of saffron spice. As there are only three stigmas to each flower, this means that 75,000 flowers are used to make up this small amount and this is why the spice is so expensive

The history of saffron

Saffron has been around for thousands of years. Although it is probably native to the Asia Minor area, it was first cultivated in Greece, where it enjoyed an important status around the 8th century BC. Pictures dating back to these times show that saffron was highly regarded as a potent therapeutic drug and herbal remedy. 
Many well-known rulers during those periods were often drawn to saffron due to its bright colour and perfume. Saffron was often used to perfume the royal baths, halls, courts and amphitheatres or they used it as a dye to colour royal garments as well as potions, ointments and lotions. After the fall of the Roman Empire, saffron's popularity waned all throughout Europe, however it had begun to make its way to India and other parts of the world. It wasn't until the Moors invaded and occupied most of Spain that saffron was reintroduced into Europe. Today, Spain is one of the main saffron producers in the world and many say that Spanish saffron from La Mancha is of the best quality.

Medicinal uses of saffron

Saffron has long been used for medicinal purposes. As with a lot of other herbs, saffron is also useful in the treatment of stomach and gastrointestinal disorders amongst other ailments. Below is a list of the therapeutic properties of saffron and some of the disorders that saffron has been known to treat.
  • Saffron stimulates digestion and soothes the stomach. It eases wind and lessens intestinal gas.
  • Saffron promotes menstruation and regulates periods.
  • Research shows that several components of saffron may boost the memory and improve learning skills.
  • Saffron is an important antioxidant and helps to protect the body's cells against damage from free radicals.
  • Studies have shown that saffron may be taken in order to combat cancer and slow down tumour growth.
  • It has been used as an antidepressant and a general tonic.
  • Saffron is a mild sedative.
  • It has been used to relieve muscle cramps and spasms.
  • Saffron promotes sweating and perspiration, which is helpful in relieving fevers and high temperatures.
  • Saffron is effective in relieving stomach pains including period pains.
  • Saffron is used in kidney ailments and can also help to reduce the size of an enlarged liver.
  • Saffron can relive colic in children.
  • Chinese herbalists used saffron to treat chest infections and disorders.
  • Can be used to reduce headaches.
  • Saffron is said to be an aphrodisiac and was used by Cleopatra before lovemakin

    Buying and storing saffron

As little amounts of saffron are required in cooking, saffron should be bought in small quantities to preserve the freshness of the spice for longer. Buy saffron strands as opposed to ground saffron, which is inferior in quality and may be mixed with cheaper spices to lower the cost. Saffron should be stored in an airtight container and should be kept in a dark and dry place. 
Some people wrap saffron in aluminium foil to keep it away from strong light. Saffron should stay very fresh for around three - six months although it can be kept for much longer but will decrease in quality.

Preparing saffron before cooking

If you are using a specific recipe for cooking with saffron, follow the instructions for its preparation. There are several basic methods of preparing saffron before using it in a recipe. The most common is to soak a pinch of saffron in a cup of warm water for at least 20 minutes and up to 12 hours. On coming into contact with the water, the saffron will expand and the flavour is released and only then can it be added to the required dish. Other liquids may also be used for example stock, wine or milk. Another method is to crush the saffron into a powder by using a pestle and mortar and then adding it to the dish or steeping it first in a liquid and then adding it to the other ingredients. Finally, in dishes such as the "paella valenciana", the saffron must be toasted first and then ground into a powder before adding it to the dish.

Recipe ideas for cooking with saffron

Saffron is used in many different cuisines all over the world. In India it is used with rice and some sweets, whilst in France and Spain it is popular in fish-based dishes. Below are a number of recipe ideas for the use of saffron in cooking.
  • Use saffron in the French "bouillabaisse", a type of fish stew.
  • It is one of the main ingredients of the Spanish paella.
  • In Italian cooking it is used in "risotto alla Milanese".
  • Use saffron to flavour and colour rice.
  • Use in Indian biriyani rice dishes.
  • Add to coffee with cardamom for a Middle Eastern hot drink.
  • Saffron is a good spice to use with fish, such as cod or halibut, giving it excellent colour and flavour.
  • Use for a Scandinavian-style saffron sweet cake.
  • Use to flavour ice cream, as they do in India.
  • Use in all types of curries.
  • Use to make Cornish saffron buns.
  • Add to sauces to give it colour and a spicy flavour.
  • Add saffron to crab or fishcake mixtures.
  • Add to mayonnaise or garlic mayonnaise to give it a different colour.
  • Add to soups for a bright colour.
  • Saffron is also often partnered with chicken.

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