Saffron, a spice we add to food and confectionary is not limited just to that and has a long story behind. To know what it is and where does it come from and why it is important and even precious would be like taking a journey to a land that calls herself the motherland of saffron and produces more than 90% of the world’s saffron annually.
Saffron is a typical food item in the cuisine of many countries. It is usually considered as an amazing spice that chefs add for its color and aroma. It is one of the most expensive spices in the world because of the way it needs to be taken care of and harvested. The whole process of turning the small red stigmas of a flower called crocus into a dried spice happens just by hand, and no machine can help ease the way. The process also needs to be done in dry climates only, as it is where this flower grows. Also, there is a special timing for picking up the stigmas; it needs to be done before the morning rays of the sun make the flower bloom, as a result, the works on fields in cold and dry autumn starts at dawn and finishes around 9 A.M. There may be lots of countries who produce saffron, but Iran is the main producer of the world’s saffron with the highest quality. One fact to be taken into consideration is when you visit Iran and you want to take saffron with you back home, is that each passport can only take 100 grams of saffron.
As we want to help you know more about saffron, it would be pleasant to look at it as a journey to a city in Iran, for example, Qaen in Khorasan district which is famous for the mass production of saffron. Let’s visit an old house of a farmer, Abdollah. So, sit back and close your eyes, as we go through this journey together.
As soon as you close your eyes, an old wooden door appears in front of you. The door looks ancient, and you feel like there is nothing in this world you want more than knocking on that door and entering the house. The sun is up, right in the middle of the sky, as if it is around noon. Although you enjoy the warmth of the sun on your back, you are safe from its rays as you are standing in the doorway of the old house. You breathe heavily and you hear a mixture of smells. The smell of some kind of a flower you cannot identify clearly, a smell that reminds you of pouring rain, which you identify as the watered soil, and… there is something else. Something a bit familiar yet far. You feel like you have heard this smell before somewhere, and it takes you back to your childhood and a blurry picture of an old confectionary in your old hometown forms in front of your eyes. The smell is sweet, enriching, and feels bright and happy.
You finally knock and the people of the house invite you in, as they are cooking something on big pots which they have set in the yard. They are working collectively, helping each other out.
An old man sits beside you, telling you that his name is Abdollah and he is a farmer and that he has harvested saffron almost all his life. He tells you of saffron and its importance to Iranian culture and cuisine. We follow the old man’s tales and descriptions from now on.
To talk about the origins and claim which nation first started using saffron in their food is not that easy. Greeks claim that they were the initial users of saffron, but what can be said for sure is that Iranians are the first nation who cultivated the usage of saffron, and to date, they are the biggest producers of saffron worldwide.
Saffron is taken from the flower of the saffron crocus. This small purple flower has usually three red stigmas that need to be picked by hand. Those small red stigmas are saffron, they are then taken away from the lands and dried carefully. This is how they can be used as a spice.
Iran is the biggest producer of the world’s saffron and 85 to 93 % of the world’s saffron comes from Iran. The east side of Iran, where the climate is somehow dry is the main site for producing saffron. Mainly, the city of Mashhad in Khorasan, located in the northeast of Iran is known to be the main producer of saffron. The saffron of Qaen, another city in Khorasan is the most famous saffron among Iranians themselves. However, numerous cities located in the eastern part of Iran are involved in the mass production of the red gold of Iran, saffron. Cities such as Gonabad, Torbate Heydarieh, Taybad, and Khaaf.
The harvest season for saffron starts in early November. So when the plains seem to be welcoming the cold weather, in the eastern part of Iran they are covered with small purple flowers and very beautiful scenery is thus created. The work in the saffron farms starts so early because the stigmas need to be picked before the flower of crocus actually blooms with the sunlight. Hundreds of people, usually women, go to the lands at dawn and start picking the red stigmas by hand. Around 9 AM they gather together and sitting in circles they start drying the stigmas under the rays of the sun.
You ask Abdollah how Iranians use saffron. He looks around and says, in almost every Iranian food saffron is used. Usually, it is put in a small bowl of hot water and left aside for a few seconds, then it is used to add more color, flavor and aroma to the food. This way the aroma and the color are released better. But it is not just in food that Iranians use saffron, it is used in making desserts and cookies, confectionary.
He tells you that in some special Iranian religious ceremonies, mainly in Arbaein, a kind of desert is made widely which is called Sholeh Zard. Saffron is one of the most important ingredients of it if not the most important one. Sholeh Zard is a kind of smooth rice pudding which is yellow and sweet because of the saffron used in it.
Even in the traditional ice cream of Iran, known as Bastani Sonnati, saffron is the most important ingredient.
You are curious about more traditions and ceremonies in which saffron is used, and Abdollah tells you about the Ab-Dua tradition which takes place in Shahroud, a city of Semnan district almost in the northeast of Iran. A few days before Norouz, the Iranian New Year, mosques of the city of Shahroud start making some kind of ink by adding water to the saffron. Then, the calligraphers use this ink to write seven verses of the Quran, the holy book of Islam which start with the world Salaam, meaning greetings on floral porcelain plates. These plates are later submerged into copper bowls in which they pour water and people come and get it hours before Norouz and place it on their HaftSin, the traditional table they set for Norouz with its special seven parts, and they believe it will bring fortune and health to them in the upcoming year.
Abdollah tells you that Iranians tend to gather together on every special occasion, or better to say in any chance they get, and they cook delicious Iranian food and desserts together and enjoy them together. And as saffron is believed to be able to cheer you up, it is used in food and drinks and deserts of these gatherings. Just like the scene you are witnessing in the old house you are visiting.
The old man, Abdollah, realizes that you are both curious and amazed to know more, so he continues to tell you more. As it was said earlier, saffron has a long story behind. There are stories about the ancient kings of Iran who used to scatter gold and saffron among their people in times of victories and celebrations. It has been said that those kings used saffron as a perfume. They also colored the fabrics of their garments by saffron. Another interesting thing that shows how precious the saffron was to the ancient Iranians is the fact that they would use saffron to color their important papers on which they would write prayers, important literature or letters.
Iranians have always believed that saffron is not just a spice to be used for its aroma or the color, it has medical usages as well. This is one of the reasons that Iranians though using saffron a lot, believe that it has to be used in moderation.
It is believed that saffron eradicates sadness and depression. One of the reasons it is used in desserts like Sholeh Zard in religious ceremonies or in making Bastani Sonnati, the traditional ice cream of Iran. It is sometimes added to the tea and served with Nabat, to help people who are sad or depressed in their difficulties. Saffron also helps to defeat low blood pressure.
If we want to consider the medical usage of saffron more scientifically, we can say that investigations show that saffron is a major source of antioxidants. Dried saffron has 65% carbohydrates, 6% fat, 11% protein and 12% water. In a tablespoon of saffron, approximately 2 grams of it, is 28% of manganese.
More than that, saffron can help you have softer skin and hair. If we compare saffron to other spices it encompasses more vitamins, especially vitamin B family and dietary minerals. The nutrient content of dried saffron is probably more than all the other spices.
Persian saffron is widely used in Persian foods such as the jeweled rice and many khoreshs of Iran, alongside deserts such as Sholeh Zard or Masghati. It is also used in Indian, Turkish and Arab cuisine. Biryani in south Asia is one of the most famous cuisines that use saffron. It is also used in making bouillabaisse in France and the Milanese risotto. Saffron is used in making golden ham as well. It is also used in confectionery worldwide due to its color and aroma.
As Iranians are so gentle with their guests and they always try to help them enjoy their time in Iran and remember it with good memories and good souvenirs afterward, Abdollah teaches you how to distinguish the good saffron from the low-grade saffron. The first item you need to take into consideration when you are buying saffron and you want to know whether you are buying high-quality saffron or not is the color. If the stigmas have a vivid crimson color with slightly lighter orange-red color on the tips, you are buying high-quality saffron. This color shows that the stigmas are not colored artificially. On the other hand, if they are dull brick-red it shows that they are old and you should not buy them.
The second important factor is the aroma. It needs to be strong and fresh. There are other small facts which can easily help you recognize the quality of the product you are buying. For example, there should not be any broken-off debris collected at the bottom of the container or yellow and white plant parts mixed with the red threads. When you take high-quality saffron in your hands, it will be brittle and dry to the touch, not moistened, as the moistened one indicates the presence of water trapped in them to add to the weight of it.
You must have wondered why saffron is so expensive, Abdollah tells you with a smile. The whole process of harvesting saffron needs to be done by hand. The flowers are so small and the even smaller stigmas cannot be taken off with machines, only by gentle hands. And these stigmas are very light. 500 stigmas only make 1 gram of saffron, and they are taken from 167 saffron flowers. 250,000 stigmas make only half a kilo!
However, Abdollah assures you that it is worth it. The aroma and sweetness, the beautiful color and the medical usage all prove the importance of saffron and it being worthy to be bought. Just remember, you are allowed to take 100 grams of saffron with each passport!
“I assure you,” Abdollah says,” that you are not buying anything ordinary, to look at it as a spice, as something else in your kitchen. Saffron is special, every time you use it, its aroma reminds you of all the delicious dishes you have eaten back here, in Iran. Its color will remind you of the plains, full of crocus flowers. And hopefully, you will remember us, as we will remember you.” And you know that you will, you will remember the plains, the hard work of men and women who used to get up so early in the morning and set to work. You will remember them sitting in circles, picking the stigmas and telling stories of the land as ancient, welcoming and beautiful as Iran.
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