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Saffron

 

Saffron (pronounced /ˈsæfrən/ or /ˈsæfrɒn/).

Is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the “saffron crocus”. The vivid crimson stigma and styles, called threads, are collected and dried for use mainly as a seasoning and colouring agent in food. Saffron has long been the world’s costliest spice by weight. Although some doubts remain on its origin, it is believed that saffron originated in Iran. However, Greece and Mesopotamia have also been suggested as the possible region of origin of this plant. Harold McGee states that it was domesticated in or near Greece during the Bronze Age. C. sativus is possibly a triploid form of Crocus cartwrightianus, which is also known as “wild saffron”. Saffron crocus slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia and was later brought to parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania.

Saffron’s taste and iodoform-like or hay-like fragrance result from the phytochemicals picrocrocin and safranal. It also contains a carotenoid pigment, crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles. Its recorded history is attested in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical treatise, and has been traded and used for thousands of years. In the 21st century, Iran produces some 90% of the world total for saffron with best quality. At US $5,000 per kg or higher, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice.

Etymology

Further information: History of saffron

A degree of uncertainty surrounds the origin of the English word “saffron”. It might stem from the 12th-century Old French term safran, which comes from the Latin word safranum, from the Arabic za’farān, which comes from the Persian word zarparan meaning “gold strung” (implying either the golden stamens of the flower or the golden color it creates when used as flavor).

Description

Saffron Flowers

Crocus flowers which yield red saffron stigmas

Saffron onions.

Corms

Saffron harvest

Saffron harvest, Torbat-e Heydarieh, Razavi Khorasan Province, Iran

The domesticated saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is an autumn-flowering perennial plant unknown in the wild. It probably descends from the eastern Mediterranean autumn-flowering Crocus cartwrightianus which is also known as “wild saffron” and originated in Crete or Central Asia. C. thomasii and C. pallasii are other possible sources. As a genetically monomorphic clone, it slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia.

It is a sterile triploid form, which means that three homologous sets of chromosomes make up each specimen’s genetic complement; C. sativus bears eight chromosomal bodies per set, making for 24 in total. Being sterile, the purple flowers of C. sativus fail to produce viable seeds; reproduction hinges on human assistance: clusters of corms, underground, bulb-like, starch-storing organs, must be dug up, divided, and replanted. A corm survives for one season, producing via vegetative division up to ten “cormlets” that can grow into new plants in the next season.[23] The compact corms are small, brown globules that can measure as large as 5 cm (2 in) in diameter, have a flat base, and are shrouded in a dense mat of parallel fibres; this coat is referred to as the “corm tunic”. Corms also bear vertical fibres, thin and net-like, that grow up to 5 cm (2 in) above the plant’s neck.

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The plant sprouts 5–11 white and non-photosynthetic leaves known as cataphylls. These membrane-like structures cover and protect 5 to 11 true leaves as they bud and develop on the crocus flower. The latter are thin, straight, and blade-like green foliage leaves, which are 1–3 mm (1⁄32–1⁄8 in), in diameter, which either expand after the flowers have opened (“hysteranthous”) or do so simultaneously with their blooming (“synanthous”). C. sativus cataphylls are suspected by some to manifest prior to blooming when the plant is irrigated relatively early in the growing season. Its floral axes, or flower-bearing structures, bear bracteoles, or specialised leaves, that sprout from the flower stems; the latter are known as pedicels. After aestivating in spring, the plant sends up its true leaves, each up to 40 cm (16 in) in length. Only in October, after most other flowering plants have released their seeds, do its brilliantly hued flowers develop; they range from a light pastel shade of lilac to a darker and more striated mauve. The flowers possess a sweet, honey-like fragrance. Upon flowering, the plants are 20–30 cm (8–12 in) in height and bear up to four flowers. A three-pronged style 25–30 mm (1–1+3⁄16 in) in length, emerges from each flower. Each prong terminates with a vivid crimson stigma, which are the distal end of a carpel.

Cultivation

The saffron crocus, unknown in the wild, probably descends from Crocus cartwrightianus. It is a triploid that is “self-incompatible” and male sterile; it undergoes aberrant meiosis and is hence incapable of independent sexual reproduction—all propagation is by vegetative multiplication via manual “divide-and-set” of a starter clone or by interspecific hybridisation.

Crocus sativus thrives in the Mediterranean maquis, an ecotype superficially resembling the North American chaparral, and similar climates where hot and dry summer breezes sweep semi-arid lands. It can nonetheless survive cold winters, tolerating frosts as low as −10 °C (14 °F) and short periods of snow cover. Irrigation is required if grown outside of moist environments such as Kashmir, where annual rainfall averages 1,000–1,500 mm (40–60 in); saffron-growing regions in Greece (500 mm or 20 in annually) and Spain (400 mm or 16 in) are far drier than the main cultivating Iranian regions. What makes this possible is the timing of the local wet seasons; generous spring rains and drier summers are optimal. Rain immediately preceding flowering boosts saffron yields; rainy or cold weather during flowering promotes disease and reduces yields. Persistently damp and hot conditions harm the crops, and rabbits, rats, and birds cause damage by digging up corms. Nematodes, leaf rusts, and corm rot pose other threats. Yet Bacillus subtilis inoculation may provide some benefit to growers by speeding corm growth and increasing stigma biomass yield.

The plants fare poorly in shady conditions; they grow best in full sunlight. Fields that slope towards the sunlight are optimal (i.e., south-sloping in the Northern Hemisphere). Planting is mostly done in June in the Northern Hemisphere, where corms are lodged 7–15 cm (3–6 in) deep; its roots, stems, and leaves can develop between October and February. Planting depth and corm spacing, in concert with climate, are critical factors in determining yields. Mother corms planted deeper yield higher-quality saffron, though form fewer flower buds and daughter corms. Italian growers optimise thread yield by planting 15 cm (6 in) deep and in rows 2–3 cm (3⁄4–1+1⁄4 in) apart; depths of 8–10 cm (3–4 in) optimise flower and corm production. Greek, Moroccan, and Spanish growers employ distinct depths and spacings that suit their locales.

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C. sativus prefers friable, loose, low-density, well-watered, and well-drained clay-calcareous soils with high organic content. Traditional raised beds promote good drainage. Soil organic content was historically boosted via application of some 20–30 tonnes per hectare (9–13 short tons per acre) of manure. Afterwards, and with no further manure application, corms were planted. After a period of dormancy through the summer, the corms send up their narrow leaves and begin to bud in early autumn. Only in mid-autumn do they flower. Harvests are by necessity a speedy affair: after blossoming at dawn, flowers quickly wilt as the day passes. All plants bloom within a window of one or two weeks. Stigmas are dried quickly upon extraction and (preferably) sealed in airtight containers.

Harvesting

The high retail value of saffron is maintained on world markets because of labour-intensive harvesting methods, which require some 440,000 hand-picked saffron stigmas per kilogram (200,000 stigmas/lb) – equivalently, 150,000 crocus flowers per kilogram (70,000 flowers/lb). Forty hours of labour are needed to pick 150,000 flowers.

One freshly picked crocus flower yields on average 30 mg of fresh saffron or 7 mg dried; roughly 150 flowers yield 1 g (1⁄32 oz) of dry saffron threads; to produce 12 g (7⁄16 oz) of dried saffron, 450 g (1 lb) of flowers are needed; the yield of dried spice from fresh saffron is only 13 g/kg (0.2 oz/lb).

Production

Almost all saffron grows in a belt from Spain in the west to Kashmir in the east. In 2014, 250 t (250,000 kg) were produced worldwide. Iran is responsible for 90–93% of global production, with much of their produce exported.

In the 21st century, cultivation in Greece and Afghanistan increased. Morocco and India were minor producers. In Italy, saffron is produced primarily in Southern Italy, especially in the Abruzzo region, but it is also grown in significant numbers in Basilicata, Sardegna, and Tuscany (especially in San Gimignano). Prohibitively high labour costs and abundant Iranian imports mean that only select locales continue the tedious harvest in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland—among them the Swiss village of Mund, whose annual output is a few kilograms. Microscale production of saffron can be found in Australia (mainly the state of Tasmania), Canada, Central Africa, China, Egypt, parts of England France, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden (Gotland), Turkey (mainly around the town of Safranbolu), the United States (California and Pennsylvania).[3][39] Greece is a saffron producer with a history of 3 centuries of cultivation of a saffron called Krokos Kozanis, having started exports to the United States in 2017.

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Trade

Saffron prices at wholesale and retail rates range from $1,100–$11,000/kg ($500–$5,000/lb). In Western countries, the average retail price in 1974 was $2,200/kg ($1,000/lb).[3] In February 2013, a retail bottle containing 1.7 g (1⁄16 oz) could be purchased for $16.26 or the equivalent of $9,560/kg ($4,336/lb), or as little as about $4,400/kg ($2,000/lb) in larger quantities. There are between 150,000 and 440,000 threads per kilogram (70,000 and 200,000 threads/lb). Vivid crimson colouring, slight moistness, elasticity, and lack of broken-off thread debris are all traits of fresh saffron.

 

Consumption

Saffron threads soaked in hot water prior to use in food preparation

Saffron’s aroma is often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste has also been noted as hay-like and sweet. Saffron also contributes a luminous yellow-orange colouring to foods. Saffron is widely used in Persian, Indian, European, and Arab cuisines. Confectioneries and liquors also often include saffron. Saffron is used in dishes ranging from the jewelled rice and khoresh of Iran, the Milanese risotto of Italy, the paella of Spain, the bouillabaisse of France, to the biryani with various meat accompaniments in South Asia. One of the most esteemed use for saffron is in the preparation of the Golden Ham, a precious dry-cured ham made with saffron from San Gimignano. Common saffron substitutes include safflower (Carthamus tinctorius, which is often sold as “Portuguese saffron” or “açafrão”), annatto, and turmeric (Curcuma longa). In Medieval Europe, turmeric was also known as “Indian saffron” because of its yellow-orange color.

Nutrition

Dried saffron is 65% carbohydrates, 6% fat, 11% protein (table) and 12% water. In one tablespoon (2 grams; a quantity much larger than is likely to be ingested in normal use) manganese is present as 29% of the Daily Value, while other micronutrients have negligible content (table).

 

Toxicity

Ingesting less than 1.5 g (1⁄16 oz) of saffron is not toxic for humans, but doses greater than 5 g (3⁄16 oz) can become increasingly toxic. Mild toxicity includes dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, whereas at higher doses there can be reduced platelet count and spontaneous bleeding.

 

Storage

Saffron will not spoil, but will lose flavour within six months if not stored in an airtight, cool, dark, place. Freezer storage can maintain flavour for up to two years.

 

Research

Genes and transcription factors involved in the pathway for carotenoid synthesis responsible for the colour, flavour and aroma of saffron were under study in 2017.

Saffron constituents, such as crocin, crocetin, and safranal, were under preliminary research for their potential to affect mental depression. Saffron has also been studied for its possible beneficial effect on cardiovascular risk factors, such as lipid profile, blood glucose, weight, and in erectile dysfunction, however no strong supporting high-quality clinical evidence exists, as of 2020.

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