Still life of a bowl with saffron. Juan Manuel Sanz/©ICEX
Saffron, Crocus sativus L., is a bulb belonging to the family Iridaceae. From October to November, each bulb gives rise to one to three flowers, starting as a tube that opens up into a funnel shape, with a lilac to purple color. This is the saffron rose, with long, narrow leaves that eventually open up, revealing the interior. This comprises an ovary with three yellow stamens and a white filament - the style - which divides into three red strands or stigmas, the saffron threads. Spanish saffron has long, thin, rather brittle filaments with a dullish orange-red color. Its aroma is intense and the flavor is slightly bitter. It is considered to be of top quality.
Saffron cultivation, harvesting and handling have to be done by hand as great delicacy is required for this highly esteemed and valued product. Harvesting takes place every day in the very early morning, as from mid-October, during a short period of just a couple of weeks. To obtain one kilogram of saffron, 85,000 flowers have to be picked. After picking comes extraction, also a manual process, in which the stigmas are removed from the flower, then roasted and packed.
The history of saffron as a spice goes back to 2300 BC. It has been used since then in gastronomy, medicine and even in religious rites. It was brought to Spain by the Arabs, being a much-loved spice in Arab cuisine and culture. Spain is the world's leader in saffron production and exports, in both thread and powder form, and accounts for almost half the world's saffron trade.
The main growing area is Castile-La Mancha, with almost 90% of Spain's production. The Designation of Origin Azafrán de La Mancha comes from this region. This saffron must always be from the latest harvest, can be presented only in thread form, and is considered internationally to be of excellent quality. Cultivation takes place in several districts in the provinces of Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca and Toledo, all of them in Castile-La Mancha.
There are several types or qualities of saffron in Spain, classified by their coloring power. The above-mentioned, world-class La Mancha saffron with its long stigmas has a very high coloring power of over 180 color units. Sierra saffron has 150 units. This variety is grown in Consuegra and Madridejos in the province of Toledo (Castile-La Mancha). Río saffron, of lesser quality, has an elongated style and similar coloring power to Sierra saffron. It is mostly grown in the Jiloca valley in the province of Teruel (Aragón). Coupé saffron is made up only of stigmas (without the styles) cut either by hand or with scissors and is a very dark red color. Its coloring power is 120 units and it can be made from saffron of any quality. Powdered saffron is any type of ground saffron and has a coloring power of over 120 units. Preparado Molido is ground saffron with a minimum coloring power of 60 units.
Saffron is used in many ways as a food or cosmetic coloring agent, although it is famed for its use as a spice in dishes such as paella to which it gives both the characteristic color and unmistakable flavor. It can also be used in meat dishes, soups, stews, with shellfish or fish, and is a frequent ingredient in Spanish recipes.