The purple saffron crocus has been prized in the Mediterranean and Middle East going back many millennia, but azafrán has become identified with Spain and Spanish cuisine more than any other country – in fact, some three-quarters of the world’s production has historically come from Castile-La Mancha (in fact, there’s even a DOC for La Mancha saffron), though Spain has more recently been overtaken by Iran as the world’s top producer.
It’s a rare and amazingly delicate spice. In order to thrive, crocus flowers require hot, dry weather in summer, and cold in winter, and their red stigmas must be harvested in the early morning and sorted – by hand – within a day or two of the flowers’ annual blooming in late October/early November; and it takes around 200 flowers to yield a single gram of saffron. This rarity and delicacy makes it one of the most expensive food items – recently fetching some 3,000 euros per kilo – for which for once the cliché “worth its weight in gold” could actually be said to be true (fortunately, just tiny amounts are needed in cooking).
Saffron’s flavour is mild, smooth, and slightly spicy, and it is most often used in rice dishes, and is what gives one of Spain’s most iconic dishes, paella (above), its characteristic yellow colour. It’s used in plenty of other dishes, as well, such as Asturias‘ fabada bean stew and Galicia‘s pote gallego, as well as the countrywide patatas bravas (fried potatoes with piquant red sauce). It’s sold both ground and as dried red threads – and when buying, the latter is the way to go, as they preserve the flavour longer.
image | Henna, Jan Harenburg