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Saffron (Crocus sativus L.)

Synonyms

pharmaceuticalStigmata Croci
Amharicሳፍሮን
Safron
Arabicزعفران
زَعْفرَان
Zafraan, Zafran
Aramaicܙܥܦܪܢ, ܟܘܪܟܡ
Zapran, Kurkam
ArmenianՔըրքում, Քրքում
Kerkoom, Kerkum
Assameseজাফৰাণ, জাফৰান, কুঙ্কুম, কুংকুম
Jafaran, Kunkum, Kungkum
AzeriZəfəran
Зәфәран
BasqueAzaparán, Hupa, Azafraia
BelarusianШафран
Shafran
Bengaliজফরাণ, জফরান
Japhran, Jafran
BretonSafron
BulgarianШафран
Shafran
CatalanSafrà
Chinese
(Cantonese)
番紅花 [fàan hùhng fāa]
Faan huhng faa
Chinese
(Mandarin)
番紅花 [fān hóng huā], 藏红花 [zàng hóng huā]
Fan hong hua, Zang hong hua
CroatianVrtni šafran
CzechŠafrán
DanishSafran
Dhivehiކުކުން
Kukun
DutchSaffraan
EsperantoSafrano
EstonianKrookus, Safrankrookus, Safran
Farsiزعفران
Za'afaran, Zaafaran
FinnishSahrami
FrenchSafran
GaelicCrò, Cròdh, Cròch
GalicianAzafrán
Georgianზაფრანა
Zaprana, Zaphrana
GermanSafran
GreekΚρόκος, Σαφράνι, Ζαφορά
Krokos, Safrani, Zafora
Greek (Old)Κρόκος
Krokos
Gujaratiકેસર
Kesar
Hebrewזעפרן
זְעַפרָן
Safran, Za'afran, Zafran
Hindiकेसर, ज़ाफ़रान
Kesar, Zafran
HungarianFüszersáfrány, Sáfrány
IcelandicSaffran
IndonesianKunyit kering, Kuma-kuma, Sapran
IrishChróch
ItalianZaffarano, Zafferano
Japanese蕃紅花
さふらん
サフラン, バンコウカ
Safuran, Bankōka, Bankoka
Kannadaಅಗ್ನಿಶಿಖೆ, ಕುಂಕುಮ ಕೇಸರಿ, ಕೇಸರಿ
Agnishikhe, Kunkuma kesari, Kesari
Kashmiriکونگ, زعفران
Kung, Zafaran
KazakhЗағыпаран, Запырангүл, Жауқазын
Jawqazın, Zağıparan, Zapırangül
KhmerRomiet
Korean사프란, 샤프란
Sapuran, Syapuran
Laoຫຍ້າຝັ່ນ
Yafan
LatinCrocus, Safranum
LatvianSafrāna krokuss, Safrānaugs
LithuanianŠafranas
MacedonianШафран
Šafran
MalayKoma koma
Malayalamകാശ്മീരം, കുങ്കുമപൂ, >, കുങ്കുമപൂവ്
Kashmeeran, Kungumampoovu, Kunkumapu
MalteseŻagħfran, Żafran
Manipuri (Meitei-Lon)কেশর
ꯀꯦꯁꯔ
Kesar
Marathiकेशर
Keshar
Nepaliकेशर, कुंगकुम
Kesar, Kung-kum
Newari
(Nepalbhasa)
केशर
Kesar
NorwegianSafran
Oriyaକେସର, କୁଙ୍କୁମ ଫୁଲ
Kesara, Kunkuma phul
PahlaviKurkum
PashtoZaffaron
PolishKrokus uprawny, Szafran
PortugueseAçafrão, Açaflor
ProvençalSafran
Punjabiਕੇਸ਼ਰ, ਕੇਸਰ
Keshar, Kesar
RomanianȘofranŞofran
RussianШафран
Shafran
SanskritKumkuma, Kashmiirajan, Kashmiiran, Nagakeshara
SerbianШафран
Šafran
Sinhalaකහ මල්
Kaha Mal
SlovakŠafrán siaty, Šafrán
SlovenianŽafran
SpanishAzafrán
SwahiliZafarani
SwedishSaffran
TagalogKashubha
Tamilகுங்குமப்பூ
Kungumapu, Kungumappu
Teluguకుంకుమపువ్వు
Kunkumapuvvu
Thaiหญ้าฝรั่น
Ya faran
Tibetanགུར་ཀུམ་, ཁ་ཆེ་སྐྱེས་, ཀུང་ཀུམ་
Gur-kum, Kha-che kye, Kunkum (uncertain)
Tuluಕೇಸರಿ
Kesari
TurkishSafran, Zağferan
UkrainianШафран, Крокус
Shafran, Krokus
Urduزعفران, کیسر
Zafran, Kisar
UzbekZafaron
Зафарон
VietnameseMàu vàng nghệ, Quí nghệ, Nghệ tây
Mau vang nghe, Qui nghe, Nghe tay
WelshSaffrwm
Yiddishזאַפֿרען, זאַפֿראָן
Zafren, Zafron
Crocus sativus: Saffron flowers
Saffron flowers
Crocus sativus: Saffron stigmas
Saffron stigmata, also called saffron threads
Used plant part

Stigma, also called style (central part of a flower, female sexual organ). Approximately 150000 flowers are needed for one kilogram of dried saffron; typically, one would need 2000 m2 field area per kg harvest. Less expensive qualities include also the yellow stamina (male sexual organ), which do not have any taste of their own.

Crocus sativus: Flowering saffron plant
Flowering saffron plant
Crocus sativus: Saffron cultivation in Switzerland
Saffron growing in the Swiss mountains

www.zunft-zu-safran.ch

Plant family

Iridaceae (iris family).

Sensory quality

Very intensively fragrant (remi­niscent of iodoform, but much more pleasant), slightly bitter in taste. By soaking saffron in warm water, one gets a bright yellow–orange solution.

Main con­stituents

The intensive colour of saffron is caused by pigments of carot­enoid type. Although saffron contains some con­ventional carot­enoids (α- and β-carotene, lycopin and zea­xanthin), its staining capability is mostly caused by crocetine esters; crocetin is a dicarboxylic acid with a carotenoid-like C18 backbone which is formed from carotenoid precursors (diterpene carotenoid). Crocin, a diester of crocin with gentobiose, is the single most important saffron pigment.

In the essential oil (max. 1%), several terpene aldehydes and ketones are found. The most abundant constituent is safranal, 2,6,6-trimethyl 1,3-cyclo­hexadiene-1-carbaldehyde (50% and more); another olfactorily important compound is 2-hydroxy 4,4,6-trimethyl 2,5-cyclo­hexadien-1-one. Further­more, terpene derivatives have been identified (pinene, cineol).

The bitter taste is attributed to picrocrocin, the glucoside of an alcohol structurally related to safranal (4-hydroxy 2,4,4-trimethyl 1-cyclohexene-1-carboxaldehyde ). On de-glucosylation, picrocrocin yields safranal.

Crocus sativus: Close-up Saffronflower
Saffron flower with yellow stamina and red stigmata
Crocus sativus: Saffron threads after harvest
Saffron threads after harvest

© Therese Witzke

Safranal and its relatives, most typically C9 or C10 isoprenoids with a cyclohexane ring, are formed from carotenoid pigments as the result of enzymatic degradation (see also pandanus leaves).

Origin

Saffron is the triploid form of a species found in Eastern Greece, Crocus cartwrightianus; it probably appeared first in Crete. An origin in Western or Central Asia, although often suspected, has been disproved by botanical research. (Plant. Syst. Evol., 128, 89, 1977)

Because of being triploid, saffron is necessarily sterile, and its beautiful flowers cannot produce any seeds; propagation is possible only via corms. Distribution over larger distance requires human help, and so it’s surprising that saffron was known to the Sumerians almost 5000 years ago. It is not known, however, how the spice was transported from the Medi­terranean to Sumer in Meso­potamia.

Today, saffron is cultivated from the Western Mediterranean (Spain) to India (Kashmir). Spain and Iran are the largest producers, accounting together for more than 80% of the world’s production, which is approximately 300 tons per year.

In Europe, saffron production is almost limited to the Mediterranean; Spanish (La Mancha) saffron is generally considered the best. In much smaller scale, saffron is also cultivated in Italy and Greece (Crete).

Crocus sativus: Saffron in Kashmir
Dried saffron in bulk quantity
Crocus sativus: Saffron flowers in Kashmir
Saffron flowers in Kashmir
Crocus sativus: Saffron flowers Pampore/Srinagar/Kashmir/India
Flowers on a saffron field (India)

Saffron does, however, quite well in cooler climates, and since the 15.th century, numerous attempts have been made to introduce saffron production to German, Switzerland, Austria and even England. For example, the town of Saffron Walden (Essex/England) got its name from local saffron production in the 16.th century. However, by the end of the 18.th century, most of the former saffron cultivation sites had become abandoned, and in our days, the only remaining saffron industry in Europe north of the Mediterranean is found in Mund, a small Swiss village in canton Wallis. In Mund, a few kilograms of saffron per year are produced in traditional way, at an elevation of about 1200 m.

Of the Western and Central Asian cultivation areas, Iran is most productive. In recent years, yield has been enormously increased and Iran now produces more saffron than Spain. Smaller amounts are harvested in Turkey and India.

Of all the Indian provenances, Kashmiri saffron has a particularly high reputation, but is hardly available outside India; furthermore, yields and quality have decreased because of the unfortunate political situation persisting since decades. Production is confined to a small area around the village Pampore [پانپورہ], just a few kilometers from the summer state capital Srinagar. The fields are divided into sections one or two square meters large and are kept free from vegetation all year round. Flowers show up for a about two weeks in the end of October or the beginning of November. They are picked from the plants (to stimulate more flower formation) and separated into styles are waste afterwards. Including the final drying of the styles, all the work is done by families that use little or no modern technology.

Etymology 

The name saffron comes from Arabic, where the spice is known as az-za'fran [الزعفران]; that name is often explained to derive from a Semitic root ṢPR signifying be yellow or become yellow (see also safflower). This is an ancient name, as demonstrated by its Akkadian incarnation azupīru; yet it has no Hebrew cognate (see below on the Hebrew name). The Sumerian form azugna [𒌑𒄯𒊕] denotes a plant that has not clearly identified, possibly saffron.

Crocus sativus: Saffron corms
Saffron corms

© Laura Pazzaglia in Simmarano

Crocus sativus: Saffron field
Saffron field (Pampore near Srinagar, Kashmir)
Crocus sativus: Saffron corm in Panpurah
Saffron corm, just unearthed

Directly or via medieaval Latin safranum, the word spread from the Iberic peninsular (then under Mauric rule) to practically all European languages and even some non-European ones, e. g. (to name a few geographical extremes) Portuguese açafrão, Italian zafferano, Greek zafora [ζαφορά], Georgian zaprana [ზაფრანა], Russian shafran [шафран] and Finnish sahrami. Similar names are also found in non-European languages, e. g., Amharic safron [ሰፍሮን], Kazakh zağıparan [зағыпаран], Hindi zafran [ज़ाफ़रान], Thai yafaran [หญ้าฝรั่น] and Japanese safuran [さふらん, サフラン].

The Sanskrit names of saffron point to the ancient Indian area of saffron production: Kashmirajanman [कश्मीरजन्मन्] product of Kashmir and kashmira [काश्मीर] the one from Kashmir; the second name, however, can also be used for other Kashmiri products, e. g., costus (putchuk), Saussurea lappa, Asteraceae. Such names are rare in today’s Indian languages, an example is Malayalam kashmiram [കാശ്മീരം].

Several super­ficially similar Indic names of saffron (Sanskrit kesaravara [केसरवर], Hindi kesar [केसर], Punjabi keshar [ਕੇਸ਼ਰ], Urdu kisar [کیسر]) are, however, not related but derive from Sanskrit kesara [केसर] hair, eye-brow, which refers to the thin, almost hairlike saffron threads. Yet note that the analogous Tibetan name gaser [སྒ་སེར] means turmeric.

The earliest Greek name of saffron is found in Linear B tablets: knakos [𐀏𐀙𐀒, also written logographically as 𐂔], which in the classical era became knekos [κνῆκος] or knikion [κνίκιον] and was used to denote other orange-flowering plants, e. g., safflower (see there for its affiliation). In India, Sanskrit kunkuma [कुंकुम] and Kashmiri kung [کونگ] probably belong to the same kin. That name even spread to Burma, where the plant is known by the (suspected) Indian loanword kunkum [ကုံကုမံ].

The knakos-type names fell into disuse after the collapse of the Mycenean civilization; from Homer’s time one, saffron was invariably called krokos [κρόκος] in Greek language. In the Iliad, Homer used that word as a metaphor for the golden colour of dawn (see also poppy). The origin of that name is not known, but is is usually assumed pre-Greek and not Indo–European.

Except in Modern Greek, this name has not survived to any contemporary language, but cf. also Old English crog saffron. In its Latin form Crocus, the name appears as the botanical genus name of saffron. The etymology of krokos is not known with certainty, but maybe there is a connection to Old Hebrew language.

Crocus sativus: Group of saffron plants
Group of saffron plants

The Old Hebrew name for saffron is karkom [כרכם] and appears frequently in the Old Testament (see pome­granate). In Modern Hebrew, karkom was abandoned in favour of safran [זעפרן] which is directly derived from Arabic za'fran [زعفران].

The Arabic cognate of Hebrew karkom [כרכם] is kurkum [كركم], originally also with the meaning saffron. This is probably not a Semitic word, as is has close relatives in unrelated languages, e. g., Middle Persian kurkum and Sanskrit kunkuma [कुंकुम]. Arabic kurkum is no longer used for saffron, but denotes another yellow spice, turmeric. Many languages, particularly European ones, have names for turmeric that relate to the Arabic, e. g., curcuma (English is a rare exception here). Of the whole kin of karkom and kurkum, only Armenian kerkoom [քըրքում] is still alive with the meaning saffron.

Selected Links

Reisebericht von der Safranernte aus Pampore (Kashmir) Indian Spices: Saffron (indianetzone.com) Ilkas und Ullis Kochecke: Safran (rezkonv.de via archive.org) Wikipedia: Saffron (excellent article) A Pinch of Saffron (www.apinchof.com) The Epicentre: Saffron Medical Spice Exhibit: Saffron (via archive.org) (via archive.org) Transport Information Service: Saffron Sorting Crocus names (www.plantnames.unimelb.edu.au) Crop and Food Research: Saffron (crop.cri.nz via archive.org) Saffron from A to Z (saffronspecialist.co.uk) Desirable Herb and Spice Varieties: Saffron Safran bestellen bei azafran.de Penzeys Spices: Spanish and Kashmiri Saffron American Spice Company: Spanish Saffron Herbie’s Spices: Kashmiri Saffron The Spice House: Spanish Saffron Raritätengärtnerei Treml: Safranknollen saffron.com Ancient Cultic Associations of Saffron Crocus (paghat.com) Saffron: Aroma from Carotenoids Saffron Crocus — Conjuring Color and Flavor in the Autumn Garden (Brooklyn Botanic Garden) The Londsdale Collection: Crocus (thealpinegarden.com) The Crocus Page (thealpinehouse.fsnet.co.uk) Le Musée du Safran tala-quality.ch: Safran-Versand (saffron mail order) Recipe: Chicken Biryani (allrecipes.com) Recipe: Mutton Biryani (tripod.com) Recipe: Shahjahani Biriyani [शाह जहानी बिरयानी] (soulkurry.com) Recipe: Badaam Kheer (cuisinecuisine.com) Recipe: Ras Malai [रसमलाई] (recipecottage.com) Recipe: Risotto Milanese (www.cliffordawright.com) Recipe: Risotto Milanese (www.italianfoodforever.com) Recipe: Risotto Milanese (www.leitesculinaria.com) Rezept: Safran-Risotto aus Mund/Wallis (webkoch.de) Recipe: Bouillabaisse (www.cliffordawright.com) Recipe: Bouillabaisse (bbc.co.uk) Recipe: Paella Valenciana (foodnerwork.com) Recipe: Paella Valenciana (www.globalgourmet.com) Recipe: Zarda Pullao [ज़र्दा पुलाव] (www.orl.ucla.edu) Saffron Buns (recipesource.com) Cooking with Kurma: I’m Just Mad about Saffron (kurma.net) Muhammad Imran Alam: Notes on Saffron Cultivation (muhammadalam.blogspot.com)


Crocus sativus: Saffron crocus flower
Saffron flower
Crocus sativus: Saffron flower
Saffron flower
Crocus sativus: Saffron flower
Saffron flower
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world (anything below 4 € per gram is suspiciously cheap; explanations range from probably smuggled to probably not saffron at all). In production countries the price is, of course, much lower (one tenth), but so is the quality. Saffron’s aroma is unique and there is no substitute for it, but if unavailable, vanilla, kewra water, rose water or tonka beans are possible alternatives for saffron in sweets and cakes.

The statement Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world is without any doubt correct, looking at the price per gramm; on the other hand, saffron is also very intensive and therefore used in minute amounts: One gram of saffron goes a much longer way than the financially equivalent portion of most other spices. Half a teaspoon of saffron (which might well be a fifth of a gram) is, for example, enough for one liter of saffron custard, provided the saffron is of reasonable quality.

There are several other plants that can give a yellow or orange colour to the food; yet none of these has the hypnotic fragrance of true saffron. You can fool the eye, but not the taste buds. See annatto for more information on culinary plant dyes.

Speaking of other yellow plants: Saffron cheating is as old as saffron trade, and will persist as long as saffron is traded. There is a multitude of possibilities how to cheat: Crude methods include selling something that is not saffron at all — artificially coloured grass flowers, safflower and calendula flowers being obvious candidates (meat fibers have aso been reported). The common mislabelling of turmeric as Indian saffron also borders fraud (after all, there is saffron production in India!). People unaware of the taste of good saffron may be persuaded to buy an old or overdried product. Even large spice companies sometimes sell products that, although deriving from the right plant, have no or even a false aroma. Increasing the weight of saffron by coating the stigmata with a non-volatile liquid (fatty oil or glycerol, which gives a sweet taste an untrained customer might even regard as a sign of quality) is also very common.

Crocus sativus: Saffron harves in Kashmir/India
A basket of saffron flowers
Crocus sativus: Saffron field (Pampore/Kashmir)
Kashmiri saffron field (India)

Buying saf­fron, thus, reduces to a matter of trust. To ensure a reasonable quality, saffron should preferably be bought whole, as any adulterants are very difficult to detect in ground saffron. In a former version of this site, I had here the bold statement no self-respecting vendor sells ground saffron, but several vendors who considered themselves self-respecting protested. Indeed, saffron can retain its aroma in ground state better than many herbs, if it is kept dry and cool. So there is nothing fundamentally wrong with ground saffron, as long as it really is saffron (which will be difficult to prove without a lab).

Old European recipes sometimes prescribe astronomical amounts of saffron (personally, I guess these saffron-rich spice mixtures have more the function of a status symbol than that of a food additive), but in today’s Europe saffron plays a minor rôle. It is, however, used for several Mediterranean dishes, often in connection with fish and seafood: Famous examples are the Italian risotto alla Milanese (moist short-grain rice with bone marrow), the Provençal fish soup bouillabaisse (see also lavender) and the Spanish national dish, paella Valenciana (spicy dry short-grain rice with seafood or chicken); see also sassafras for a New-World-variant of paella. Furthermore, saffron appears in a few European cake recipes, where it is used both for flavour and for colour.

Crocus sativus: Saffron flowers
Saffron flowers

www.zunft-zu-safran.ch

Saffron is more important in Central Asia and Northern India, where it is used extensively for rice dishes. Northern Indian biriyani [बिरयानी] is a fragrant and aromatic rice dishe, usually with chicken or mutton, which is intensively flavoured by saffron in conjunction with Indian bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, green cardamom, star anise and nutmeg or mace; they are frequently decorated with nut or almond pieces and dried raisins or pomegranate seeds. The combination of saffron with peppermint in biriyanis of Persian style is especially delightful. Similar rice pots, in which saffron is combined with a hint of pungency, are found in the countries surrounding the Gulf of Arabia (majboos, see rose).

Indian sweets (kheer [खीर], ras malai [रस मलाई]) are sometimes prepared with saffron; there is a sweet saffron rice dish called zarda [ज़र्दा], which is prepared by Indian Muslims at the end of the fasting month and also enjoyed on other festive occasions. Saffron even sometimes shows up in the famous Indian yoghurt drink lassi (see rose). Saffron-flavoured butter lassi (makhaniya lassi [मक्खनिया लस्सी]) is an everlasting culinary impression for everybody visiting Jodhpur, a great town in the center of Rajasthan. Similarly, I will never forget the saffron-flavoured ice cream, which is available chiefly in places where well-to-do domestic tourists spend their holidays (see also vanilla).

Poison: Colchicum autumnale (autumn crocus)
Beware: This flower belongs to autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), a highly toxic plant common in Europe.

Saffron is rather unique among spices in that its main aroma and colour components are water-soluble; therefore, the stigmata may be soaked overnight in water, filtered and the water then added, which gives a pure and homogeneous colour. Another method is preferred in Persia and India: The spice is powdered and then extracted with a little milk; after half an hour, the milk has the deep colour of egg yolk and is added to biriyanis or sweets. Using the dry spice (whether ground or as a whole) directly for cooking is not favourable, as it releases its fragrance too slowly, and prolonged cooking should be avoided for loss of aroma. Thus, it is best to prepare an extract with cold liquid and add that extract to the hot foods.

In high dosage, saffron exhibits toxic qualities. It has even been used as an abortificant in doses of five to ten gramms; such amounts, are, however already severely toxic. Due to its high price and the much smaller amounts used for cooking, accidental saffron poisoning seems to be very rare, though.

Although saffron can sometimes be found wild in Europe (more precisely, escaped from former cultivation), it is not advisable for the botanically unminded to collect wild saffron: Chances are high that the plant turns out to be the much more common autumn crocus, which is also known as meadow saffron or naked ladies (Colchicum autumnale). This plant is for good reason named after the ancient country of poison brewing, Colchis [Κολχίς], and is indeed one of the most dangerous plants in the European flora. Interestingly, the leaves of autumn crocus can be confused with another edible wild plant of Central Europe (bear’s garlic) and have caused deaths repeatedly.



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