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All About Saffron

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. It's derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus and has a deep auburn colour and sweet flavour. The stigmas can only be picked by hand and it takes 250,000 stigmas to make just half a kilo of saffron, hence its high price. Fortunately, a little saffron goes a long way.

Saffron, contains minerals, mucilage, fat, wax and aromatic Terpenic Essential oil with a ‎few cineol, such as picroretine, picrocrocine and crocine. There are 10 to 16 percent water, 5 to ‎‎7 percent minerals, a few Gloside, 5 to 8 percent fat and wax, 12 to 13 percent protein with a ‎few essential oil that make Saffron more delightful and produces a stronger smell. ‎

Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). Crocus is a genus in the family Iridaceae. A C. sativus flower bears three stigmas, each the distal end of a carpel. Together with the styles — stalks that connect the stigmas to their host plant — the dried stigmas are used in cooking as a seasoning and colouring agent. Saffron, long the world's most expensive spice by weight, is native to Southwest Asia in particular, Iran and recently from Spain.

Color of saffron 
Main color substance of Saffron is a compound called crocine, with the chemical formula C44 H64 ‎O24. Crocine is a rare and natural water-soluble carotenoide, it dissolves easily in water. Owing ‎to this solubility, Saffron, comparing with other carotenoids, is gradually used in food and in the ‎medicine as coloring materials.‎

Besides crocine, Saffron contains free aglycone crocine and a few anthocyanin pigment, as well ‎as oil soluble pigments in terms of lycopene, alpha carotene, beta carotene and zeaxanthin. ‎Saffron coloring power is one of the main determining parameters in deciding quality of Saffron ‎and is evaluated by the quantity of its colorant components with a spectrophotometer at the ‎wave length of 443 nanometers.‎ 

Crocin (C44 H64 O24) is the most influential chemical in the coloring power of saffron. It is a rare carotenoid found in nature which can easily dissolve in water. In comparison to other carotenoids, crocin has a wider application as a colorant in food and medicine, mainly because of its high solubility. This substance was first discovered by Solomon and Carrar in crystal form. These scientists have done a number a researcher on the structure of
crocin and identified it as follows: Other than crocin, saffron is also made up of free aglycone crocin and a small number of anthocyanin pigments. The oil soluble color pigments include lycopene, alpha carotene, beta carotene and Zeaxanthin. The main parameter in deciding the quality of saffron is its coloring potential which can be measured by the quantity of its colorant components with a spectrophotometer at the wave length of 443 nanometers (Habibi and Bagheri, 1989; International organization for standardization (ISO) 3632-1 1993).

The taste of Saffron 
Taste of Saffron is formed by a major component--bitter taste glucose, by means of ‎crystallization under the title of picrocrocin with C16 H26 O7 chemical formula, acid hydrolysis ‎produces glucose and aldehyde that namely Safranal. ‎

Safranal is the main aromatic substance and makes up about 60 percent of volatile components ‎of Saffron. It is free as nonvolatile picrocrocin in fresh Saffron, but due to heat and time, it will be ‎volatile aldehyde of Safranal.‎

Safranal is a volatile, oily liquid with light yellow spot. This oily liquid dissolves easily in ethanol, ‎methanol, ether and oil. By means of distillation under releasing CO2 gas, ether oil is separated ‎and evaporated finally, the remained oil is yellow liquid that has strong aroma of Saffron. As this ‎substance is part of terepenes, it is very sensitive against oxidation, therefore, must be kept in ‎special condition.

Saffron, the dried orange-red stigmas of Crocus sativus L. flowers, is widely used in coloring and flavoring of foods. The freshly picked stigmas are nearly odorless, with typical saffron flavor being developed during the drying process. In particular, safranal, the major constituent of the essential oil of saffron, is formed by hydrolysis of the bitter glycoside picrocrocin. In addition to picrocrocin there are numerous other glycosides that may undergo hydrolysis to yield a complex array of compounds that comprise the volatile profile of saffron.

A glucose known as picrocrocin (C16 H26 O7) is the major factor for the bitter taste of saffron. This bitter substance can undergo crystallization, through acid hydrolysis, producing safranal (a glucose and aldehyde)

Saffron Aroma:
Safranal is an organic compound isolated from saffron, the spice consisting of the stigmas of crocus flowers (Crocus sativus). It is the constituent primarily responsible for the aroma of saffron.
It is believed that safranal is a degradation product of the carotenoid zeaxanthin via the intermediacy of picrocrocin.

Saffron Substitute
There is no substitute for the flavour and aroma of saffron. The saffron crocus is the only crocus which can produce the saffron spice. 

Saffron substitutes include: 
Turmeric, which is a yellow spice, purchased usually in powdered form, though before grinding closely resembles the ginger root. It delivers some of the same color and a little of the flavour of saffron, perhaps at a cheaper cost. Low cost saffron below the market price is usually found as ground saffron and they are mixed with some Tumeric to pass as saffron. For this reason, it is not advisable to purchase ground saffron from dubious sellers.

Also there is Safflower is a thistle-like flower that has seeds which produce an edible oil and birdseed. The flower was traditionally grown for its red dye .Its appearance and color closely resembles saffron, though it delivers little of the saffron taste. Some sellers sell this at relatively high prices to buyers that assume they are buying cut price saffron.

Chemical Composition:
Saffron's bitter taste and iodoform- or hay-like fragrance result from the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. Saffron also contains a carotenoid dye, crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles.

Etymology of Saffron:
The name comes from the original Persian (Farsi) that is pronounced as Za'farān or Za'faron ( زَعْفَرَان ). The English word saffron stems from the Latin word safranum via the 13th-century Old French term safran. Some argue that it ultimately came from the Arabic word زَعْفَرَان (za'farān), which itself derives from the adjective أَصْفَر (aṣfar, "yellow"). However, some etymologists argue that زَعْفَرَان (za'farān) is the arabicized form of the Persian word زرپران (zarparān) — "having golden stigmas". Latin safranum is also the source of the Italian zafferano, Portuguese açafrão and Spanish azafránetc. Crocum in Latin is a Semitic loan word derived from Aramaic kurkema via Arabic kurkum, and Greek krokos.

Biology of Saffron:
Saffron crocus is wild in nature and the domesticated (Crocus sativus) is an autumn-flowering perennial plant unknown in the wild. It is often mistaken for the more plentiful common autumn crocus, which is also known as meadow saffron or naked ladies (Colchicum autumnale) and has been the cause of deaths due to mistaken identity. 

Saffron in high dosage can also be posionous. It is a sterile triploid form, possibly of the eastern Mediterranean autumn-flowering Crocus cartwrightianus that originated in Central Asia (Iran). The saffron crocus resulted when Crocus cartwrightianus was subjected to extensive artificial selection by growers seeking longer stigmas. Being sterile, the purple flowers of Crocus sativus fail to produce viable seeds; reproduction of saffron depends on human assistance: corms, underground bulb-like starch-storing organs, must be dug up, broken apart, and replanted. A corm survives for one season, producing via this division up to ten "cormlets" that grow into new plants. Corms are small brown globules up to 4.5 centimetres (1.8 in) in diameter and are shrouded in a dense mat of parallel fibers.

After aestivating in spring, the plant sends up five to eleven narrow and nearly vertical green leaves, each up to 40 cm (16 in) in length. In autumn, purple buds appear. 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.  Upon flowering, plants average less than 30 cm (12 in) in height. A three-pronged style emerges from each flower. Each prong terminates with a vivid crimson stigma 25–30 mm (0.98–1.2 in) in length.

Cultivation of Saffron:
The cultivation of saffron needs an extreme climate; hot and dry weather in summer and cold in winter. The land must be dry, calcareous, aired, flat and without trees. Attributes that the Meseta of Castilla-La Mancha has, which has made it one of the most important production areas in the world.

The soil must be equilibrated in organic material in order to avoid risks of erosion, and have some depth that allows the water to drain so that the bulb is not damaged. The sowing takes place in the months of June and July. The bulbs are placed in ridges of about 20 cm. depth. The distance between the bulbs should be of 10 cm.
The sowing of bulbs is a very hard job because it is done by hand, and forces you to walk in a bent position for hundreds of yards. A mule follows the sower with a roman plough to cover the ridges.

The harvesting of Saffron takes place between the end of October-beginning of November. The rose of saffron blooms at dawn and should stay the least possible time in the plant because it withers quickly and the stigmas loose colour and aroma. This is why they are gathered between dawn and 10 a.m.

Once the Saffron flowers are gathered, stigmas are separated from the rest of the flower. The fact that more than 85.000 flowers are needed to obtain just one kilo of saffron gives us an idea of how hard this work is. The job is extremely labour intensive and hence the high price.

The stigmas of saffron have a high level of moisture, so it is necessary to dry them for its good preservation. This is the process of roasting, in which the stigmas get it definitive aspect: bright red, rigid and without wrinkles.

After the process of roasting, the stigmas of saffron would have 1/5 of their original size. This means that for one kg of raw stigmas we will obtain 200 g of saffron ready for consumption. For its perfect preservation, saffron is stored in big wooden trunks lined with metal plate inside protecting it from heat, cold and specially moisture.

The sowing takes place in the months of June and July. The bulbs are placed in ridges of about 20 cm. depth. The distance between the bulbs should be of 10 cm. The sowing of bulbs is a very hard job because it is done by hand, and forces you to walk in a bent position for hundreds of yards. A mule follows the sower with a roman plough to cover the ridges.

The harvesting takes place between the end of October-beginning of November. The rose of saffron blooms at dawn and should stay the least possible time in the plant because it withers quickly and the stigmas loose colour and aroma. This is why they are gathered between dawn and 10 a.m.

Once the flowers are gathered, stigmas are separated from the rest of the flower. The fact that more than 85.000 flowers are needed to obtain just one kilo of saffron gives us an idea of how hard this work is.

Crocus sativus thrives in the Mediterranean maquis (an ecotype superficially resembling the North American chaparral) and similar climates where hot, 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 not grown in moist environments such as Kashmir, where annual rainfall averages 1,000–1,500 mm (39–59 in); saffron-growing regions in Greece (500 mm or 20 in annually) and Spain (400 mm or 16 in) are far drier than where Crocus is cultivated in Iran, for example. 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 out the corms. Nematodes, leaf rusts, and corm rot pose added threats.
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 to 15 centimetres (2.8–5.9 in) deep. 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 optimize thread yield by planting 15 centimetres (5.9 in) deep and in rows 2–3 cm apart; depths of 8–10 cm optimizes flower and corm production. Greek, Moroccan, and Spanish growers have devised distinct depths and spacings to suit their locales.

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 of manure per hectare. 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. Roughly 150 flowers yield 1 gram (0.035 oz) of dry saffron threads; to produce 12 g of dried saffron (72 g freshly harvested), 1 kg of flowers are needed (1 lb for 0.2 oz of dried saffron). One fresh-picked flower yields an average 30mg (0.03g) of fresh saffron or 7mg (0.007g) of dried saffron.

Chemical Composition of Saffron:

Type of component  Size (w/w %)
Moisture 10
Carbohydrates 9based on invert sugar) 14
Tannines 10
Pentosanes 8
Pectin 6
Starch 6
Crocine 2
Other carotenoids 1
Proteins 12
Mineral elements 6
Non-soluble in acid as 0.5
Non-volatile oil 6
Volatile oil 1
Crude fibers 5
Table 1- Source - AcademicJournals
Analytical results of main components of saffron

Saffron contains more than 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds. It also has many nonvolatile active components, many of which are carotenoids, including zeaxanthin, lycopene, and various α- and β-carotenes. However, saffron's golden yellow-orange colour is primarily the result of α-crocin. This crocin is trans-crocetin di-(β-D-gentiobiosyl) ester (systematic (IUPAC) name: 8,8-diapo-8,8-carotenoic acid). This means that the crocin underlying saffron's aroma is a digentiobiose ester of the carotenoid crocetin.  Crocins themselves are a series of hydrophilic carotenoids that are either monoglycosyl or diglycosyl polyene esters of crocetin. Meanwhile, crocetin is a conjugated polyene dicarboxylic acid that is hydrophobic, and thus oil-soluble. When crocetin is esterified with two water-soluble gentiobioses (which are sugars), a product results that is itself water-soluble. The resultant α-crocin is a carotenoid pigment that may comprise more than 10% of dry saffron's mass. The two esterified gentiobioses make α-crocin ideal for colouring water-based (non-fatty) foods such as rice dishes.

The type and amount of saffron components is shown in Table 1. Saffron carbohydrates are mostly from reductive sugars, which consist of around 20% of saffron dry weight. Among these carbohydrates the presence of glucose, fructose, gentibose and small quantity of xylose and ramnose were fixed. Table 2 shows all types of saffron carbohydrates and pigments.

International standard organization reported that the total weight of different elements in 100 g of dried saffron as: calcium 111 mg, phosphorous 525 mg, potassium 1724 mg, sodium 148 mg, zinc and magnesium in small quantities (24). Saffron is one of the richest sources of
riboflavin. The amount of thiamine and riboflavin in four samples of saffron is shown in Table 3. In one study with mouse treated with 150 mg of saffron and the effect was similar to treating the same mouse with 40 mg of synthetic riboflavin (Habibi and Bagheri, 1989).

Use in food industries
Saffron has a long history about use as a spice and for its wonderful color, odor and test. During the recent years public interest towards using natural additives instead of synthetic chemicals has led to a breakthrough in using saffron as a natural flavoring in food industries (Valizadeh, 1988).
After separation of colorful styles the remaining parts of harvested flowers of saffron are usually considered as waste with no special use. Recent studies have shown that these materials contain considerable amount of antocyanine, a red plant pigment. This pigment together with other felavenoides of cell sap provides beautiful violet color of saffron petioles. After extraction this natural dye will change to red color in acidic conditions. Production of large amounts of saffron petioles after harvesting could be considered as a potential source of edible food color with antocyanine bases which is a proper substitute for synthetic red coloring agents (Valizadeh, 1988).
 

Type of Sample Sample 1 Sample 2
Total reductive sugars 26.7 26.3
Free reductive sugars 14.3 13.8
Sugar after inversion 14.8 14.3
Tannins and dexterine 9.4 10.3
Starch 6 6.4
Pentosane 6.4 6.9
Free crocine 0.6 0.5
Croctine 8.4 8.8
Non measurable materials 6.7 6.4
Gentibioside 2.79 2.31
Glucose 7.59 7.88
Fructose 1.85 1.91
Table 2- Source - AcademicJournals
Different kind of carbohydrates and pigments of dry saffron stigm

Medical and pharmaceutical applications Saffron is considered to have a great number of medical properties. Today, based on growing and effective applications of saffron in medical fields and in alternative medicine, it has attracted the attention of  researchers.

In traditional medication saffron has several properties such as relaxant, expectorant, exhilarating agent, digestion stimulant, spasm calmative, menstruation and fetus abortion. Saffron was also used against blood diarrhea, fever, measles, hepatitis, liver and spleen syrose, urine infection, cholera, diabetes, and dermal diseases. In English pharmaceutical codex saffron syrup, saffron glycerin and saffron tincture are discussed. Saffron is appetitive and facilitates digestion. Its essential oil is relaxant and could be useful in insomnia of nervous origin. Saffron for its effects on bronchus is used in chronic bronchitis and lung diseases. In South Asia saffron is widely used for kidney, liver, vesica disease and for medication of cholera. External application of saffron tincture is useful for dermal disease such as impetigo. Traditional knowledge of medicinal properties of saffron attracted scientific interest towards this spice and during the last decade several medicine research centers are investigating the biological and medicinal potential of saffron. Reduction of blood bilirubin level and decrease in blood cholesterol and triglycerides after using crocin and crocetin are examples of new findings about saffron properties. Recently anticancer and antitumor effects of saffron have been reported by many researchers. Saffron may substitute chemical medicines (Duke, 1987; Neghi, 1999; Niar et al., 1991).

Some medical properties of saffron are as follows:

i. Helps digestion, strengthens the stomach and is antitympanites.
ii. Activates the sexual desire.
iii. Is analgesic, especially for colicky pains gingivitis.
iv. Fights tumors and collection of free radicals (thus reacting against cancerous cells).
v. Is euphoriant and alleviates neuralgia, is a tranquilizer, cures insomnia, strengthens memory power, improve concentration, reacts against spasm, fights depression, the Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
vi. Controls blood pressure disorders, lowers high cholesterol levels, cures iron deficiency (anemia) in girls, reduces chances of such heart diseases as arteriosclerosis, helps improve heart conditions (due to the presence of thiamin, riboflavin and mineral components).
vii. Cures respiratory disorders such as asthma, cough, influenza and cold.
viii. Helps blood circulation in the retina, cures macula lutea and retinopathy ischemic caused by old age. ix. Cures rheumatism and bruises when used externally.
x. Cures amebic dysentery, the measles, inflammation of the liver, splenomegaly and urogenital infections.

The application of saffron in cancer-treatment experiments performed on laboratory animals has proved successful (Baker and Neghi, 1983; Zargari, 1993). In summary, due to saffron’s unique properties, it can be used in various industries such as food and medical industries.

History of Saffron:

The 17.8 metres (58 ft) monolith of Gomateshwara, dating to 978–993 AD, is anointed with saffron every 12 years by thousands of devotees as part of the Mahamastakabhisheka festival. Experts believe saffron was first documented in a 7th century BC Assyrian botanical reference compiled under Ashurbanipal.  Documentation of saffron's use over the span of 4,000 years in the treatment of some 90 illnesses has been uncovered.

Saffron-based pigments have been found in 50,000 year-old depictions of prehistoric places in northwest Iran. This is quite certain as it can be found wild in most parts of Iran and therefore points to centuries of cultivation in towns that no longer exists and date back earlier than 3000 years. Later, the Sumerians used wild-growing saffron in their remedies and magical potions. Saffron was an article of long-distance trade before the Minoan palace culture's 2nd millennium BC peak. Ancient Persians cultivated Persian saffron (Crocus sativus 'Hausknechtii') in Derbena, Isfahan, and Khorasan by the 10th century BC. At such sites, saffron threads were woven into textiles, ritually offered to divinities, and used in dyes, perfumes, medicines, and body washes.

Thus, saffron threads would be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. Non-Persians also feared the Persians' usage of saffron as a drugging agent and aphrodisiac. During his Asian campaigns, Alexander the Great used Persian saffron in his infusions, rice, and baths as a curative for battle wounds. 

Alexander's troops imitated the practice from the Persians and brought saffron-bathing to Greece. Conflicting theories explain saffron's arrival in South Asia. Kashmiri and Chinese accounts date its arrival anywhere between 900–2500 years ago. Historians studying ancient Persian records date the arrival to sometime prior to 500 BC, attributing it to either Persian transplantation of saffron corms to stock new gardens and parks or to a Persian invasion and colonization of Kashmir. Phoenicians then marketed Kashmiri saffron as a dye and a treatment for melancholy.

 From there, saffron use in foods and dyes spread throughout South Asia. Buddhist monks in India adopted saffron-coloured robes after the Gautama Buddha's death. This color is now used widely in all Buddhist countries. However, the robes were not dyed with costly saffron but turmeric, a less expensive dye, or jackfruit. The Tamils have been using saffron for more than 2000 years. In Tamil it is called "gnaazhal poo"(Tamil: ஞாழல் பூ)It is used to cure head ache, for painless labor etc.

Some historians believe that saffron came to China with Mongol invaders from Persia.  On the other hand, saffron is mentioned in ancient Chinese medical texts, including the forty-volume Shennong Bencaojing (神農本草經—"Shennong's Great Herbal", also known as Pen Ts'ao or Pun Tsao) pharmacopoeia, a tome dating from 200–300 BC. 

Traditionally attributed to the legendary Yan ("Fire") Emperor (炎帝) Shennong, it documents 252 phytochemical-based medical treatments for various disorders. Yet around the 3rd century AD, the Chinese were referring to saffron as having a Kashmiri provenance. For example, Wan Zhen, a Chinese medical expert, reported that "the habitat of saffron is in Kashmir, where people grow it principally to offer it to the Buddha." Wan also reflected on how saffron was used in his time: "The [saffron crocus] flower withers after a few days, and then the saffron is obtained. It is valued for its uniform yellow colour. It can be used to aromatise wine."

Recent History:

Minoans portrayed saffron in their palace frescoes by 1500–1600 BC, showing saffron's use as a therapeutic drug. Later, Greek legends told of sea voyages to Cilicia. There, adventurers hoped to procure what they believed was the world's most valuable saffron.

Another legend tells of Crocus and Smilax, whereby Crocus is bewitched and transformed into the original saffron crocus.Ancient Mediterranean peoples—including perfumers in Egypt, physicians in Gaza, townspeople in Rhodes, and the Greek hetaerae courtesans—used saffron in their scented waters, perfumes, ointments, potpourris, mascaras, divine offerings, and medical treatments.

In late Hellenistic Egypt, Cleopatra used saffron in her baths so that lovemaking would be more pleasurable.Egyptian healers used saffron as a treatment for all varieties of gastrointestinal ailments. Saffron was also used as a fabric dye in such Levant cities as Sidon and Tyre. Aulus Cornelius Celsus prescribes saffron in medicines for wounds, cough, colic, and scabies, and in the mithridatium. Such was the Romans' love of saffron that Roman colonists took their saffron with them when they settled in southern Gaul, where it was extensively cultivated until Rome's fall. Competing theories state that saffron only returned to France with 8th century AD Moors or with the Avignon papacy in the 14th century AD.

European saffron cultivation plummeted following the Roman Empire's fall. The spread of Islamic civilization allowed saffron's reintroduction to Spain, France, and Italy.  During the 14th century Black Death, demand for saffron-based medicine skyrocketed, and much saffron had to be imported via Venetian and Genoan ships from southern and Mediterranean lands such as Rhodes. The theft of one such shipment by noblemen sparked the fourteen-week long "Saffron War".

The conflict and resulting fear of rampant saffron piracy spurred significant saffron cultivation in Basel, which grew prosperous. Cultivation and trade then spread to Nuremberg, where epidemic levels of saffron adulteration brought on the Safranschou code, under which saffron adulterators were fined, imprisoned, and executed.  Soon after, saffron cultivation spread throughout England, especially Norfolk and Suffolk. The Essex town of Saffron Walden, named for its new specialty crop, emerged as England's prime saffron growing and trading center. However, an influx of more exotic spices such as chocolate, coffee, tea, and vanilla from newly contacted Eastern and overseas countries caused European cultivation and usage of saffron to decline.  Only in southern France, Italy, and Spain, did significant cultivation endure.

Europeans introduced saffron to the Americas when immigrant members of the Schwenkfelder Church left Europe with a trunk containing saffron corms; indeed, many Schwenkfelders had widely grown saffron in Europe.  By 1730, the Pennsylvania Dutch were cultivating saffron throughout eastern Pennsylvania. Spanish colonies in the Caribbean bought large amounts of this new American saffron, and high demand ensured that saffron's list price on the Philadelphia commodities exchange was set equal to that of gold.  The trade with the Caribbean later collapsed in the aftermath of the War of 1812, when many saffron-transporting merchant vessels were destroyed. Yet the Pennsylvania Dutch continued to grow lesser amounts of saffron for local trade and use in their cakes, noodles, and chicken or trout dishes.  American saffron cultivation survived into modern times mainly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Use of Saffron

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 Iranian (Persian), Arab, Central Asian, European, Pakistani, Indian, and Turkish cuisines. 

Confectioneries and liquors also often include saffron. Common saffron substitutes include safflower (Carthamus tinctorius, which is often sold as "Portuguese saffron" or "açafrão"), annatto, and turmeric (Curcuma longa). Medicinally, saffron has a long history as part of traditional healing; modern medicine has also discovered saffron as having anticarcinogenic (cancer-suppressing),  anti-mutagenic (mutation-preventing), immunomodulating, and antioxidant-like properties. Early studies show that saffron may protect the eyes from the direct effects of bright light and retinal stress apart from slowing down macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.

Saffron has also been used as a fabric dye, particularly in China and India, and in perfumery.  It is widely used in religion in India. It is widely used in cooking in many ethnic cuisines, for example, Milanese risotto in Italy, Bouillabaise in France, to biryani with various meats in the subcontinent, and paella in Spain. 

Most saffron is grown in a belt of land ranging from the Mediterranean in the west to Kashmir in the east. Annually, around 300 tonnes of saffron are produced worldwide. Iran, Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Italy, in decreasing order of production, are the major producers of saffron. Iran with its cultivation of different varieties, is the largest producer of saffron with 93.7% of the world's total production. 

The main cultivation areas in the country are in eastern and southeastern parts. The Khorassan zone has managed to achieve an excellent yield on the production and export of saffron over time, so much so that 90% of saffron production in Iran is obtained from there. Other fmaous regions are Fars Province, Estahbanat mainly and Kerman Province whose output is now on the up. Qayen region here is famous for its quality saffron. Kashmir's share has declined due to poor quality, caused by war.

A pound (454 grams) of dry saffron requires 50,000–75,000 flowers, the equivalent of a football field's area of cultivation (110,000-170,000 flowers or two football fields for a kilogram).  Forty hours of labour are needed to pick 150,000 flowers.  Stigmas are dried quickly upon extraction and (preferably) sealed in airtight containers.  Saffron prices at wholesale and retail rates range from US$500 to US$5,000 per pound (US$1,100–11,000/kg)—equivalent to £2,500/€3,500 per pound or £5,500/€7,500 per kilogram. The price in Canada recently rose to CAN$18,000 per kilogram. In Western countries, the average retail price is $1,000/£500/€700 per pound (US$2,200/£1,100/€1,550 per kilogram).  A pound comprises between 70,000 and 200,000 threads. Vivid crimson colouring, slight moistness, elasticity, and lack of broken-off thread debris are all traits of fresh saffron.

World Wide Production of Saffron:
Several saffron cultivars are grown worldwide. Spain's varieties, including the tradenames 'Spanish Superior' and 'Creme', are generally mellower in colour, flavour, and aroma; they are graded by government-imposed standards. Italian varieties are slightly more potent than Spanish, while the most intense varieties tend to be Iranian in origin. Aside from these, various "boutique" crops are available from New Zealand, France, Switzerland, England, the United States, and other countries, some organically grown. In the U.S., Pennsylvania Dutch saffron—known for its earthy notes—is marketed in small quantities.

Consumers regard certain cultivars as "premium" quality. The "Aquila" saffron (zafferano dell'Aquila)—defined by high safranal and crocin content, shape, unusually pungent aroma, and intense colour—is grown exclusively on eight hectares in the Navelli Valley of Italy's Abruzzo region, near L'Aquila. 

It was first introduced to Italy by a Dominican monk from Inquisition-era Spain. But in Italy the biggest saffron cultivation is in San Gavino Monreale, Sardinia. There, saffron is grown on 40 hectares (60% of Italian production); it also has very high crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal content. 

Another is the Kashmiri "Mongra" or "Lacha" saffron (Crocus sativus 'Cashmirianus'), which is among the most difficult for consumers to obtain. Repeated droughts, blights, and crop failures in Kashmir, combined with an Indian export ban, contribute to its high prices. Kashmiri saffron is recognisable by its extremely dark maroon-purple hue, among the world's darkest, which suggests the saffron's strong flavour, aroma, and colourative effect.

Quality of Saffron:
 

Minimum saffron colour
grading standards (ISO 3632)
ISO Grade
(category)
Crocin-specific
absorbance (Aλ) score
(at λ=440 nm)
I > 190
II 150–190
III 110–150
IV 80–110

Source: Tarvand 2005b

Several saffron cultivars are grown worldwide. Spain's varieties, including the tradenames 'Spanish Superior' and 'Creme', are generally mellower in colour, flavour, and aroma; they are graded by government-imposed standards. Italian varieties are slightly more potent than Spanish, while the most intense varieties tend to be Iranian in origin. Aside from these, various "boutique" crops are available from New Zealand, France, Switzerland, England, the United States, and other countries, some organically grown. In the U.S., Pennsylvania Dutch saffron—known for its earthy notes—is marketed in small quantities.

Consumers regard certain cultivars as "premium" quality. The "Aquila" saffron (zafferano dell'Aquila)—defined by high safranal and crocin content, shape, unusually pungent aroma, and intense colour—is grown exclusively on eight hectares in the Navelli Valley of Italy's Abruzzo region, near L'Aquila. 

It was first introduced to Italy by a Dominican monk from Inquisition-era Spain. But in Italy the biggest saffron cultivation is in San Gavino Monreale, Sardinia. There, saffron is grown on 40 hectares (60% of Italian production); it also has very high crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal content. 

Another is the Kashmiri "Mongra" or "Lacha" saffron (Crocus sativus 'Cashmirianus'), which is among the most difficult for consumers to obtain. Repeated droughts, blights, and crop failures in Kashmir, combined with an Indian export ban, contribute to its high prices. Kashmiri saffron is recognisable by its extremely dark maroon-purple hue, among the world's darkest, which suggests the saffron's strong flavour, aroma, and colourative effect.

Saffron is graded via laboratory measurement of crocin (colour), picrocrocin (taste), and safranal (fragrance) content. Determination of non-stigma content ("floral waste content") and other extraneous matter such as inorganic material ("ash") are also key. 

Grading standards are set by the International Organization for Standardization, a federation of national standards bodies. ISO 3632 deals exclusively with saffron and establishes four empirical colour intensity grades: IV (poorest), III, II, and I (finest quality). 

Samples are assigned grades by gauging the spice's crocin content, revealed by measurements of crocin-specific spectroscopic absorbance. Absorbance is defined as Aλ = − log(I / I0), with Aλ as absorbance (Beer-Lambert law) and indicates degree of transparency (I / I0, the ratio of light intensity exiting the sample to that of the incident light) to a given wavelength of light

Graders measure absorbances of 440-nm light by dry saffron samples. Higher absorbances imply greater crocin concentration, and thus a greater colourative intensity. These data are measured through spectrophotometry reports at certified testing laboratories worldwide. These colour grades proceed from grades with absorbances lower than 80 (for all category IV saffron) up to 190 or greater (for category I). 

The world's finest samples (the selected most red-maroon tips of stigmas picked from the finest flowers) receive absorbance scores in excess of 250. Market prices for saffron types follow directly from these ISO scores.  However, many growers, traders, and consumers reject such lab test numbers. They prefer a more holistic method of sampling batches of thread for taste, aroma, pliability, and other traits in a fashion similar to that practiced by practised wine tasters.

Despite such attempts at quality control and standardisation, an extensive history of saffron adulteration—particularly among the cheapest grades—continues into modern times. Adulteration was first documented in Europe's Middle Ages, when those found selling adulterated saffron were executed under the Safranschou code.

Typical methods include mixing in extraneous substances like beets, pomegranate fibers, red-dyed silk fibers, or the saffron crocus's tasteless and odorless yellow stamens. Other methods included dousing saffron fibers with viscid substances like honey or vegetable oil. However, powdered saffron is more prone to adulteration, with turmeric, paprika, and other powders used as diluting fillers. Adulteration can also consist of selling mislabeled mixes of different saffron grades.  Thus, in India, high-grade Kashmiri saffron is often sold and mixed with cheaper Iranian imports; these mixes are then marketed as pure Kashmiri saffron, a development that has cost Kashmiri growers much of their income.

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Eden Aromata has formally launched 'Saffron Olive Oil' at the Restaurant Show 2011 in Earls Court 2 (10 -12th October 2011)

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