Of all the influences on Spain’s distinctive culinary style, it was the Arab impact of bringing the spice azafrán or saffron known as “red gold” to the Spanish table that infuses Spanish cooking with its classic deep yellow color and slightly musky, rich taste.
For many American cooks like myself, saffron is still surrounded in a bit of mystery. The three-pronged stigma from the center of a saffron flower, at almost $20 a gram, it’s super-pricey. It has an aroma and flavor that hovers between floral and bitter citrus with metallic undertones. And like extra virgin olive oil, its somewhat dodgy history of fraud and adulteration serves as yet another culinary example of all that glitters is not necessarily gold.
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When I returned from a trip to Spain 15 years ago, the customs official discovered three precious glass vials of saffron buried deep in my suitcase. With a raised eyebrow and a slight shrug, he waved me through. I stashed it away like my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry, anxiously waiting for the perfect recipe to showcase these dark red-orange threads, unknowingly saving it well past its prime. Because like other spices, saffron is best when fresh and does not improve with age.
Recently, I traveled back to the La Mancha region of Spain. While it might be best known for its iconic windmills and hapless hero Don Quixote, it was the acres and acres of inches-tall small crocus flowers that I was after. As a guest of Verdú Cantó, one of the largest saffron distributors in Spain, I spent the morning with Rodolfo Encarnación Marin, manager of the Corporacion de Operadores de Azafrán Español, deep in the heart of Spain’s saffron country, to learn all I could about this quintessential Spanish ingredient known as the world’s most expensive spice.
While saffron may be the world’s most expensive spice, used properly these exquisite red-orange threads are worth every dollar. Here’s are a couple of pointers to help you make the most of a very wise investment:
- Always buy saffron in thread form, not powder, which is known to be easier to adulterate with other spices like turmeric.
- Look for a Spanish D.O. (denominación de origen) and production date on the label to ensure best quality.
- Before adding to most recipes, grind it gently between your fingers and rehydrate with a bit of very hot water. You might be advised to roast it to bring out the flavor but if it’s truly fresh this will diminish, not enhance, its subtle aromas.
- Use a deft and light hand. Fortunately, just a few threads of saffron add a slightly smoky aroma of tobacco and cedar, a luscious flavor infused with undercurrents of pepper and citrus, and brilliant red-orange color.
- Saffron is equally at home in dishes from savory paellas to sweet intensely flavored ice cream. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you will be rewarded with a unique twist on traditional tastes that add a bit of Spanish mystery to your menu.
Note: The best, most reliable shop I know to source saffron is the Spanish specialty online store www.latienda.com.
Main photo: A platter of “Spanish gold” — freshly harvested saffron threads in Albacete, Spain, before drying. Credit: Copyright Caroline J. Beck