My curiosity about saffron was piqued by a trip to an Asian grocery with my parents plodding behind me. I was browsing the shelves and spotted some ludicrously cheap saffron in the spice aisles. I studied it for a while and having not cooked with saffron threads before, decided I would find a recipe to make use of it. Unbeknownst to me, my mother was watching this interchange with rising alarm…
Mum: What are you doing with that?
Me: I don’t know yet, I’ll think of a recipe
Mum: You know they’re “red flowers” right? (note: “red flowers” is the literal translation of the Chinese name for saffron)
Me: Of course.
Mum: Be careful with that! It’s used to induce abortions!
Mum: Women in China use concentrated red flower liquid to induce a miscarriage if they had unwanted pregnancies
Dad: (nods vigorously)
Mum: (Scrutinizes me suspiciously). You’re not pregnant are you?
Me: WHAT??! NO! MUM! Saffron is really common in cooking – especially Indian cooking! And have you noticed how big India’s population is? It’s clearly not affecting their birth rate!
Mum: Well, don’t use it anyway.
I ignore them both and buy the saffron. And if you’ve read my previous posts about the malarkey my parents preach as gospel, you’d understand why I readily ignore them.
But, the conversation planted a seed of curiosity in my head and I went home and Googled it. Much to my surprise, “saffron” and “miscarriage” returned 355,000 searches, and the search terms “saffron” and “abortion” returned 695,000 searches! For greater search confidence, I searched through Google Scholar and found there were hundreds of academic papers on the topic too, some like this paper review the medical uses of the spice and the suspected toxicity of saffron from high dosages (in excess of 5g). On further reading, perhaps this effect is caused by Pricrocin, a carbohydrate that contributes to saffron’s distinctive taste, but has slight insecticidal properties and can form up to 4% of saffron’s dry weight.
But if the usual amounts of saffron called for in recipes are anything to go by, one is unlikely to accidentally ingest more than 5g! Take the photo below: the packet on the left is a 0.5g packet of high quality saffron – consisting of whole stigma from the saffron crocus flower harvested in Iran (where most saffron now comes from). The high quality whole stigmas retail at about $20+/g are best used for infusing water. The packet on the right on the other hand is the bargain 15g, $1AUD packet I picked up whilst shopping with my parents. It consists of lots of presumably poor quality, crushed and broken saffron stigma (if it is even saffron at all!) harvested in the Philippines. These are best crushed to a powder using a mortar and pestle and retail at the bargain price of $0.07/g!
Ever wondered why saffron has long held the title of the “most expensive spice in the world by weight“? It’s mainly because harvesting saffron is so incredibly labour intensive! The saffron plant has become domesticated and artificially selected to produce longer stigma – but the result has been a sterile plant. It produces no seeds and requires us to manually dig up the bulb (corm) beneath the plant to stimulate re-growth. The plant only flowers for 35 days in autumn; each flower on the plant only produces 3 stigma; each stigma again requires manual labour to be removed, and then depending on the size and weight of the stigma, it can take up to 300 – 500 flowers to produce a gram of saffron and only 30 tons are produced worldwide each year! I think with saffron production, we have the meaning of “labour intensive” defined! Oh and in case you were wondering – after saffron, I believe the white truffle is the second most expensive food stuff in the world by weight.
So even taking into consideration broken, crushed stigma, how can my bargain bin saffron cost as little as 7¢/g? Well, further investigation reveals that saffron is highly sensitive to oxidation and light so needs to be kept in a dark, vaccuum sealed package to retain its aroma and flavour – so given my bargain pack was not airtight and sitting in a store lit up with million wattage fluorescent lights, I’m guessing there wasn’t much aroma or flavour left. I also discovered there are lots of false saffron products on the market – some use silk threads coloured with beets, and there was even a suggestion urine has been used in the dying process! Sometimes, bargains are indeed too good to be true, and my bargain saffron was destined for the bin.
Coincidentally, the Co-pilot has been reading profusely about the spice trade and tells me that historically, saffron has been long been used as both a dye and as medicine. It was revered by London leading doctors in the 16th Century, and it was claimed that 10g mixed with sweet wine was enough to bring back the dead! (Although that might contradict the current evidence about it’s apparent toxicity!)
So, to pay homage to this delicate, expensive and curious spice, I decided to make a “labour intensive” dish that would deservedly place it centre stage as the star of the show.
Saffron and pea risotto
(A recipe by Valentina Harris on BBC Food)
Ingredients (serves 4):
- 1 small onion, peeled and very finely chopped
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter
- 4 handfuls raw or cooked froze peas
- 340g/12oz arborio or carnaroli rice
- up to 2 litres/3½ pints chicken or vegetable stock, kept hot
- a pinch of saffron threads soaked in warm water for 30 minutes to infuse, then strained, or 2 sachets saffron powder
- 4 tbsp freshly grated parmigiano reggiano
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Fry the onion gently in half the butter until softened but not coloured at all. Add all the rice in one go and quickly toast the grains in the hot butter and onion for up to five minutes or until they are crackling hot, but not browned at all.
- Add the first 3 ladles of hot stock and stir together thoroughly. Add all the peas except for one handful, stir together for 2 or 3 minutes, then begin to add more stock and stir thoroughly together.
- Continue to cook the risotto, adding more stock – 1½ ladles at a time – each time the spoon opens up a clear wake behind it as you draw the spoon through the cooking risotto. Keep an eye on the heat so as not to let the risotto cook too quickly.
- When the risotto is cooked thoroughly, in other words the rice grains are firm to the bite and neither pappy nor chalky, and the texture is suitably creamy, take it off the heat.
- Stir in the remaining butter and peas, the saffron powder or strained infusion from the saffron threads, seasoning to taste and half the cheese. Stir thoroughly, then cover and leave to stand for four minutes.
- After the risotto has rested, stir once more and transfer on to a warmed serving dish or individual plates, sprinkle with the remaining cheese and serve at once.
The dish undoubtedly showcases saffron’s aromas and flavours and will pander to saffron fans. The distinctive taste of saffron is strong and with careful tasting, I can understand how the scent and taste can be interpreted as medicinal, tasting slightly bitter and mineral in quality – but not in an unpleasant way. As with all risotto dishes, cooking is a mildly time and labour intensive process but as far as risottos go, it’s remarkably easy and would be a simple weeknight option or an accompaniment to richer seafood or stew type dishes.
So, now you know a little more about the history, uses, harvesting and properties of saffron. The potential toxicity curiosity of saffron is a little concerning for expecting mums and though there certainly aren’t enough academic studies to determine whether this toxic effect is definitive – it’s certainly something worthwhile to be mindful of.
And who would’ve thought that something my parents said had a skerrick of truth? Not that I’ll tell them that though.