If you find Saffron on display in a Middle-Eastern spice bazaar, chances are it’s fake. More likely, the spice is kept in the safe in the back, because, at anywhere between $1,100 and $11,000 per kilogram, it is literally worth more than its weight in gold. Adulteration of the genuine article is one of the oldest criminal industries in history and, in medieval Germany, was even punishable by death.
The issue lies in the harvesting. Each Saffron Crocus yields just three of the tiny, blood-red threads, so it takes 150,000 flowers to produce a dried kilogram. The threads can only be gathered by hand, and all of the flowers in a crop bloom and wilt in a day. The frantic farmer has less than a one-week window to gather and dry his hundreds of thousands of threads before they–and he–are ruined.
With 90% of the world’s production, Iran’s northeastern Khorasan Province is the Saudi Arabia of Saffron, only more so. As with carpets and politics, the Islamic Republic is home to some of the finest quality and the worst fakery on the planet. In an era of hostility and embargoes, we Americans are stuck with Moroccan and Spanish strains.
A merchant at the Mısır Çarşısı in Istanbul got us started in Saffron snobbery by explaining how you detect the real thing: Drop a few threads into a tumbler of warm water and swirl. When the water turns golden, the threads themselves will retain their original crimson color. Otherwise, they’re cheap imitations, and heads (at least medieval German ones) need to roll!
Every culture has its classic Saffron dish, from Biryani, Tagine, and Al Kabsa to Bouillabaise, Paella, and Risotto. Besides its deep, penetrating flavor, the spice is guaranteed to cure all your medicinal ills. Alexander the Great even bathed in it to heal the wounds he sustained while conquering Persians.
If you don’t plan on starting any epic fights, Saffron is still one of the world’s legendary aphrodisiacs. So if you want your spouse to chase you around the kitchen, now you know what to cook. But it will cost you dearly.