It may seem odd that the most expensive spice in the world comes from the tiny sexual parts of a small, lilac-colored flower with grass-like leaves, one that offers a rather acrid, bitter, haylike aroma and a golden yellow colorant for which there are less expensive substitutes. But ture saffron (Crocus sativus) remains the gold of the spice trade, with one kilogram of its threadlike red stigmata selling for more than a thousand dollars wholesale and ten thousand dollars retail. The harvest of saffron threads remains labor-intensive: one kilogram of threads requires handpicking the stigmata from 150,000 flowers. The production costs are also significant, as it takes a full acre of flowers to yield a single pound of dried threads. But the real reason for the exorbitant price of saffron may well be that no other spice looms as large in the imaginations and olfactory memories of the cultures that have traditionally relied on it.

 Of course, none of saffron’s surrogates have the magical mixture of crocin, safranal, and picrocrocin to give them the same brilliance and pungent punch. Saffron gets its bright gold color from crocin, a pigment-rich chemical compound. Its intense fragrance comes from the essential oil safranal, and its flavor from picrocrocin, a glucoside, which delivers its slightly bitter aftertaste and its medicinal qualities. It is one of the few water-soluble spices, and soaking the threads in water overnight will yield a sunny gold liquid by dawn. Combined with a color-stabilizing mordant, saffron has served as a golden dye for garments of many of the religious and political elite over the millennia, including Buddhist monks.

As a medicine, saffron’s usefulness as an antispasmodic, sedative, and abortive has been documented in the treatment of scores of illnesses. In a highly concentrated from, it can be poisonous, but it would be an expensive way to die.

Because several Crocus species have been harvested historically for use as a spice, colorant, and medicine, it is difficult to attribute all of the ancient drawings and writings about saffron use to C. sativus, which is easily the mostly widely utilized and highly prized of all the crocuses today. Botanists have long debated the origins of this domesticated crop, since wild plants similar to it are not found in the natural habitats within the crop’s geographic range. Recent studies have partially resolved this problem, however, establishing that C. sativus originated from the natural hybridization of two other Crocus species, one of which was C. cartwrightianus, a plant that grows on mainland Greece and some of its islands, among them Santorini, where it is still actively harvested for its saffron.  

The other parent of C. sativus may be C. thomasii, which also occurred in the Mediterranean region, where it still survives in Italy and on islands in the Aegean Sea. Although it is likely that polyploidy forms of C. sativus were first domesticated for saffron somewhere adjacent to the Aegean, another area of possible domestication is the arc running from Turkey, through Iraq and Iran to north-western India. Archaeologists studying rock paintings in Iran have recovered fifty-thousand-year-old flower pigments from the Crocus genus, though these almost certainly were extracted from a wild species. Iran remains the largest producer of saffron for exports, but Fabienne Gambrelle claims that the best product is harvested from Kashmir.

Some historians have speculated that saffron-bearing plants were first cultivated on Crete, simply because there are three-thousand-year-old depictions of a crocuslike flower in the Palace of Minos at Knossos. But neither these images nor the famous fresco of saffron gatherers on one of the palace walls necessarily confirms early domestication. Alas, all the pieces of the puzzle regarding the origins of saffron have not yet been put into place. Much more remains for archeologists and other history detectives to explore.

What strikes me wherever I travel is how strongly saffron is linked to the culinary identity of particular ethnicities. Whenever I have been invited for a homemade dinner among Indian immigrants to Europe or America, they proudly serve me saffron-infused rice. When my Spanish friend chef Francisco Pérez learned that I loved paella, he took a three-hour “Sunday break” from his professional duties to show me how to prepare his signature dish properly, producing enough to feed forty of our friends. But my favorite example of Saffron being embedded to cultural identity comes from the Basque immigrants to the Great Basin of western North America. When I have gone to gatherings in the Basque country of Idaho, Nevada, or Utah, it is inevitable that the evening celebrations feature enormous quantities of paella colored and seasoned with the finest saffron that the hosts have been able to import from the Basque country in Spain. As I enjoy a savory plate of this paella, I have secretly wondered to myself what it means for saffron, mussels, claims, and shrimp to have been transported from the shores of the Iberian Peninsula to a dry, landlocked basin in Northern America thousands of miles away.

When Jewish and Muslim families were expelled from Spain beginning in the late fifteenth century, they took their grandmothers’ recipes and spices with them as they fled to elsewhere in Europe and to North Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas. In the families of Sephardic Jews in particular, the practices of kosher cuisine were further blended with Arab influence to forge new traditions that reinforced their distinctive identity. Meatballs (albóndigas) in saffron sunset sauce is just one example of an Arab recipe adapted by Sephardic Jews who relocated to Venice. The Arabic name of the dish, chems el aachi, means “setting sun,” because the golden color of the sauce is reminiscent of a glorious sunset in the Maghreb and Andalusia.


Gambrelle, Fabienne. The Flavor of Spices. Paris: Flammarion, 2008.
Goldstein, Joyce. Saffron Shores: Jewish Cooking of the Southern Mediterranean, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002.
Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philadelphia: Quirck Books, 2006.
Grilli Caiola, Maria, and Antonelli Canina. “Looking for Saffron’s (Crocus sativus L.) Parents.” Functional Plant Science and Biotechnology 4 (2010): I-14.
Musselman, Lytton John. Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and the Quran. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2005.
Schneider, Sally. “From the Saffron Fields of Spain.” Saveur, March 23, 2007.
Image Credit:
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press