Saffron is not only the most expensive spice in the world, it's also the most expensive ingredient. With prices that can climb to as much as $10,000 per pound, there's no wonder it's often referred to as "red gold."
But why are these tiny red threads so prized? What makes them so expensive? And what's their true story?
Spanish saffron threads are always present in my spice cabinet. For about 12 dollars, I get a small jar stuffed with a tiny zip lock bag which contains about a spoonful of saffron.
I use it to make Spanish style rice. I use it in broth when I make seafood stews like bouillabaisse. I use it when I attempt to make paella. But I never thought about where it came from or why it's so expensive.
Until I went to my local spice shop, that is, where they told me the story.
In Mediterranean-like climates, there's a bright purple flower called the cruocus sativus, which is commonly referred to as the "saffron crocus." It was believed to be originally cultivated in Greece (stories of its origin exist in Greek mythology), but today it's grown from India and Iran to Greece, Morocco, and probably most famous, in Spain.
Inside each flower are three red stigmas. These red threads are the same threads that wind up in my little plastic zip lock from the spice shop. In order to retain their full integrity, each thread must be handpicked, one by one. This takes time.
To complicate things even more, the saffron crocus flowers only bloom in the fall for about two weeks, and the stigmas are so delicate they must be removed from the flowers in early morning so the sun, wind, and weather won't damage them.
The workers who remove the stigmas must be highly skilled and very careful. When dried, they loose about 80 percent of their original weight, and it takes nearly 70,000 blossoms to yield a single pound of saffron.
Now, can you see why saffron is so expensive? Your paella will never be the same.