Spice route – priceless saffron

Spice route – priceless saffron

Who doesn’t love saffron? It’s delicate lavender-coloured threads that imbue a deep golden yellow, its exotic history, and of course its high price tag, all make it something to be desired and treasured. Mellissa Bushby chats to us about this priceless spice.

Not to mention the fact that it is derived from the beautiful deep-purple crocus flower, which yields only three wispy mauve threads per crocus, it is also mentioned as far back as the time of Hippocrates and Galen when it was thought of as an excellent medical remedy for stomach complaints, colds, coughs, heart ailments, scarlet fever and internal bleeding.

Of course, not everyone uses this glorious ingredient, although it has been known to grace my shelves on the odd occasion. It is pricey but well worth it. Not only does it contain high amounts of vitamins B and C, magnesium, iron and potassium, but its manganese content is nearly 400% of the daily recommended intake. It also helps to normalise blood sugar, assists in the body’s absorption of calcium and helps to stimulate the body’s formation of bone, soft tissue and even sex hormones. It has also been shown to considerably decrease the effects of aluminium toxicity, such as memory loss and neurological disorders.

Crocin, which is responsible for the intense orange colour of saffron, indicates its status as a powerful medicament, and indeed, it is packed full of antioxidants that will protect your body from free-radical damage. Safranal is responsible for the distinguishing aroma while picrocrocin delivers the concentrated flavour.
Aside from all of this health talk, one of the main reasons I love saffron is for its history.
One of its first-ever (and still today most important) functions is as a textile dye. For example, the Buddhist priests in India use saffron to colour their very distinctive bright-orange robes and just one single grain can infuse almost 37 litres of water with a distinguishing shade of yellow.

Food-wise, saffron is well known for its earthy, pungent infusion of flavour into food. It is an ingredient used in many countries of the world, and around 50 tons are grown, collectively, on an annual basis, the commercial value of which is around $50 000 000. The reason for this exorbitant price tag is simply this – saffron is an old-fashioned spice, cultivated and harvested in the same way it has been done since ancient times, by hand.

It requires 4 500 flowers to make a single ounce of spice, and village elders are tasked with the removal of the threads. It’s at least a small consolation to know that saffron remains fresh for several years if sealed in an airtight container.

Beware of buying fake saffron; there are a number of imitations on the market including the paler, redder Indian safflower. Indeed, criminal behaviour around saffron goes way back, and during the Middle Ages, the adulteration of saffron with the addition of cheap by-products was considered a crime punishable by death. So be wary of cheap impersonations. Saffron may be pricey, but it is well worth it!

Middle Eastern couscous with a modern flair

• 6 saffron threads
• 1½ cups vegetable stock
• 1½ cups couscous
• 60g baby spinach leaves
• 3 tbs olive oil
• Salt and pepper
• A handful or sliced radishes
• Seeds from ½ a pomegranate, around 1/3 of a cup.

Put the saffron threads into a bowl and pour the vegetable stock over them, leave to infuse for 10 minutes.
Put the couscous into a medium heatproof bowl. Pour over the hot vegetable stock, and stir to combine.
Cover and set aside for 5 minutes until stock is absorbed. Fluff with a fork to separate grains.
Add the spinach leaves, drizzle with a little olive oil and season to taste. Gently toss to combine all ingredients.
Sprinkle the radish slices and pomegranate seeds over the salad, and serve.
Perfect on its own as a main, served as a salad or as a side dish with a hearty curry or tagine stew.

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