Ignorance about saffron in modern times is the most important reason to take advantage of the scientific, laboratory analysis available for saffron. If we were all as familiar with saffron as the ancient kings and queens were or even the Pennsylvania Dutch living in Lancaster County at the end of the last century, then maybe we could rely on sight, touch and smell to distinguish a good quality saffron from a mediocre or poor one. Instead, even the natives of saffron cultivating countries are largely ignorant about the spice. In Greece and Spain, saffron is a cash crop and an important export item. In other words, it's a business. Outside of business negotiations, relatively little attention is paid in those countries to encouraging native use of the product in cooking and baking. It is not unusual for those involved in saffron commerce to not use the spice at all in their own homes. Today, the major local use for saffron in the part of Northern Greece where it is harvested today is in manufacturing extremely potent saffron liquor, which is consumed only on special occasions. In Spain, many saffron substitutes, which provide vivid yellow color, are sold as "paella powder" to Spaniards who think they cannot afford to use the real thing.
My saffron odyssey, now in its 13th year, began unexpectedly with a taste of a German saffron cake at a fund raiser designed as a dessert tasting. With a single bite of that German sweet my imagination and curiosity were ignited.
Prior to that dessert tasting, I thought saffron was a unique flavor ingredient for a variety of savory dishes, the dishes I had tasted it in while living in Argentina. I had no idea you could bake with saffron, let alone something sweet or that saffron was the product of a single variety of fall blooming crocus. It really intrigued me that the delectable saffron cake was of German origin as I had always connected saffron with the Mediterranean and India. Later I discovered that the first "all saffron" recipe book published in the world (that I know of) was by a German author(1979).
Had I been able to duplicate the German cake in my own kitchen, my curiosity about saffron might have been satisfied right there. However, my attempts were dismal failures. One batch tasted bitter, another had color but no discernable flavor. I finally had to admit I didn't know anything about working with saffron. Fellow food professionals and the many cook books I consulted were not helpful. Within a few days of investigative research I realized my fellow writers were, for the most part, swapping the same paragraph of information about saffron without doing any new research, checking the accuracy of the old research, or writing from a practical, consumer point of view. This was a subject just waiting to be re discovered.
In 1987, I published Wild About Saffron: A Contemporary Guide to an Ancient Spice, selling 5,000 copies in 15 months. Instead of reprinting my book when it first sold out, I chose instead to continue my research, to write for magazines about saffron and to lecture, travel to saffron harvests, test saffron recipes, and serve as a consultant to companies and institutions selling saffron and saffron products. My second book on saffron will be ready for publication soon.
Why a second book on the same subject? The answer is simple. The average consumer still doesn't understand that saffron is an affordable, delicious food and drink flavoring agent. It is 13 years since I first became seriously interested in saffron and the same confusing information and misinformation about this spice that I read back then continues to be repeated in the latest cook books, articles and newspaper food pages. I hope to raise the level of dialogue about the usefulness of this spice while continuing to debunk the thick mythology which surrounds it.
Americans as a group are practical and I am no exception. What good does all the romantic mythology and history about saffron do you as a passionate cook or baker without knowing where to buy excellent powder or thread saffron and the best way to preserve and use it? Unfortunately, it is easier for you to discover how Cleopatra used saffron (as make-up, possibly perfume) than it is to find out how to use it most effectively in your own kitchen. Early in my research I grew so tired of reading different views of how many saffron crocus flowers, stigmas or bulbs it took to produce such and such amount of commercial saffron that I just began to tune out any figures I came across. In the end I really didn't care about statistics. I just wanted to work with good saffron to produce delicious results.
Intuitively, before I attended my first saffron harvest, I knew the prices being charged for saffron in the U.S. had little to do with saffron growers fanning out at dawn to pick crocus flowers containing the bright red stigmas, which become commercial saffron. Soon enough my hunch was confirmed. Saffron's pricing has allot to do with what happens to the pricing of goods when they passes through many hands between the farmer and the consumer.
The average person's ignorance about how to buy and use saffron
is also an important factor because it allows for inflated pricing
and poor package labeling, proving little or no direction for proper
use of the spice. The difficulty of harvesting saffron by hand
rather than machine, which none of the major cultivating countries
have been able to change despite monumental research efforts, and
the amount of acreage devoted to saffron in the world are not the
reason one U.S. retailer charges $8 for a gram of the spice while I
pay about $1.25 per gram for excellent quality. When it comes to
saffron, it seems that retailers charge what they think they can get
given saffron's reputation as precious.
Following are what I consider the major myths about saffron which, once dismissed, allow you to use, appreciate and enjoy saffron without intimidation, just as you enjoy other Mediterranean flavors which blend well with saffron. I would be very surprised if these myths do not sound familiar:
Like all myths, there is some truth hidden inside them, which has been distorted. Let's look at these nine myths, one at a time:
1. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Saffron dishes are expensive.
I have been paying $36 per ounce for good saffron for several years (2001). Anyone reading this page could do the same. An ounce is a year's supply if you want to cook or bake with saffron once a week. That's not expensive.
2. Saffron is useful mainly for its bright yellow dye with which looks wonderful in food.
There is no question that the egg yolk-yellow dye in saffron is beautiful. However, there are several other natural ingredients which can color food an attractive yellow (annatto, carrots, yams, turmeric, curry powder, cumin, egg yolks) and I would never have become as interested in saffron as I am had it not been for its unique flavor and aroma. If you use good saffron and extract it in your cooking properly, it is impossible to get color without also getting that unique earthy flavor and aroma.
3. Saffron threads are pure; saffron powder is adulterated.
The quality saffron that I have used since 1984 has always been available in threads and powder. Adulterated saffron can come in thread or powder form (see basic tips with Saffron for more information on advantages of using powdered saffron).
4. Spanish saffron is the best saffron in the world.
Good saffron is available in the U.S. from Greece, Iran, Kashmir (India) and Spain. Iranian saffron is currently illegal in the U.S., which has an embargo against Iran. My saffron comes from the Northern Province of Macedonia in Greece. This is the only saffron I have bought which has its coloring strength indicated on its label. The only way, as far as I know, that saffron's quality can be measured is through determining its coloring strength (see basic tips Section for more details).
5. Saffron has a short shelf life. Saffron has a shelf life of six months.
Good saffron has the longest shelf life of any ingredient I know of as long as I store it in an airtight container, shielded from light (see basic tips Section).
6. If you cannot afford saffron, use turmeric, curry powder, annatto, safflower or just leave it out of a recipe.
Saffron's flavor cannot be duplicated. Anyone who uses saffron just once, knows this. Leaving it out or using a substitute is the equivalent of trying to make 40-clove garlic chicken without garlic or vanilla ice cream without vanilla.
continued on page 2, please click on the link for page 2 below.
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