Saffron

Saffron

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

A rummage for saffron in the kitchen cupboard at home revealed the following: one plastic sachet of fake ‘saffron’ threads purchased for novelty value from the souks of Marrakesh (it is really safflower); one small square glass bottle of La Mancha saffron threads brought back from a holiday in Spain; and one tiny pot of brick-red, ferociously expensive saffron powder from Iran. Neither versions of the real thing look like much for the money, but even the tiniest pinch results in an explosion of bright-yellow sunshine through your food, and contributes an indescribable bitter–sweet flavour that leaves you longing for more.

True saffron threads are the orangey-red stigmas of a type of crocus flower (Crocus sativus linnaeus) which is thought to be native to the Fertile Crescent. Archaeological remains in Sumerian burial grounds suggest that saffron was used as a natural yellow dye as early as 5000 BC. The yellow colour comes from crocin, an intensely potent natural pigment – one part crocin will turn 150,000 parts of water bright yellow! This characteristic meant it was much in demand in ancient times as a dye for textile and carpet weavers.

Saffron has always been adored by the aristocracy as a symbol of opulence and refinement. The Greeks and Romans used it to dye their clothes and to tint their bathing water. They believed it had cleansing qualities, and used it to perfume their houses and public meeting places. Saffron was also used medicinally, to relieve depression and as a tonic for the heart, while stuffing it in bedding was thought to aid sleep. In the kitchen, saffron was used to gild all manner of pastries, meat and seafood dishes, as well as contributing its own indefinable flavour.

The Romans spread saffron all around their empire – even as far west as England – but with the decline of their empire, trading networks in Europe collapsed and the supply of spices from the East dried up. The violent peoples responsible for the chaos of Europe’s Dark Ages had no interest in subtlety and refinement – least of all in their food – so it was not until the emergence of the Arab empire in the eighth century that relative calm returned to the region. Gradually, the Arabs re-emerged as a significant trading power. Many spices were re-introduced to European cities, and refinement returned to local customs and in particular foods. The word for saffron in most European languages is strikingly similar, and they all derive from the Arabic (from ‘sahafarn’, meaning ‘thread’, and ‘za’faran’, meaning ‘yellow’).

The use of saffron in many cuisines can be traced back along common cultural threads. In Spain, for instance, the Arabs planted fields both of rice and saffron – the ingredients for the best known Spanish dish, paella. Saffron is also added to rice dishes in countries as far apart as Iran, Turkey, the Balkan countries, Lebanon, Syria, Italy and Morocco. Another significant cross-cultural use of saffron is in the baking of special cakes and breads for religious celebrations.

Saffron adds a magic touch to both savoury and sweet dishes. It is often combined with seafood, as in the classic Mediterranean bourrides and bouillabaisse, and adds a spicy pungency to Moroccan tagines. Saffron also works in sweet dishes, transforming milky custards, brûlées and ice-creams. In northern Europe it is favoured in baking and yeast cookery, tinting breads and tea cakes, batters and pastries a glorious yellow.

Selecting and storing saffron

The rule with saffron is that if it isn’t expensive, it probably isn’t real saffron, and you should give it a miss. This rule applies particularly if you are a traveller in a strange land. In Morocco, for instance, many vendors in the spice markets offer vividly appealing mounds of a deep orange-yellow powder which they insist is saffron. In fact it is turmeric (often called ‘Indian saffron’), which is not at all the same thing. Turmeric is used a great deal in Moroccan cooking to add colour, but it has nothing like the pungent, distinctive flavour of real saffron, and the two are certainly not interchangeable. At other stalls, you might be offered ‘saffron’ threads, which look genuine and are again offered at an enticingly cheap price. This, too, is likely to be an imposter, probably tasteless safflower or, worse still, shredded marigold petals. There is no getting away from the fact that because of the labour-intensive process of its cultivation and harvest, real saffron is expensive – and the better the quality, the costlier it will be. But, the rewards are great and the impact is huge relative to the amount needed.

On the whole, we recommend using saffron threads rather than saffron powder, as the latter is too easily adulterated (although there are exceptions, like the very pricey powder from Iran). Here in Australia, however, you are most likely to buy saffron from an upmarket food store or delicatessen. They pretty much only have the real thing, imported from Spain, Iran, Turkey or Greece, reassuringly packaged in neat little containers and often sealed with a label giving information about brand name, packing date, weight and even quality.

Good quality saffron threads should be densely entwined, long, fine filaments of a deep orangey-red hue. Most will probably also contain a small number of whitish-yellow styles – which are removed from the top-grade stuff – but they don’t affect the aroma or flavour. Top-quality saffron powder usually comes in sachets or tiny plastic pots, and should be as dark as brick-dust. It is also more expensive than the whole threads, as the moisture is extracted before it is ground to a fine powder. Having spent so much money, you will naturally want to store your saffron correctly – away from the light in a cool dry cupboard, where it should last for 3–5 years.

Using saffron

When using saffron, the first thing to work out is how much to use. Many recipes are decidedly unhelpful, suggesting only a vague ‘pinch’. Weighing saffron is nigh impossible, given the tiny quantities used. In our view, it is more appropriate to count out the threads on a per-person basis. You will probably find that once you start using saffron and become used to its bewitching flavour, you will want to use more and more, but a good starting point is to use four threads per person, plus a few for luck. In other words, for four people, use 16–20 threads.

Saffron needs to be ‘heat-activated’ before use, or its impact will be disappointing. One option is to dry-roast saffron threads gently and grind them to a powder before use (bought powder has already undergone this process). The alternative is to make a saffron infusion in a hot liquid, which should be made ahead of time and added during the cooking process. Some cuisines employ a combination of these techniques, gently roasting the saffron threads before infusing.

To roast saffron, toss the threads in a totally dry pan over a moderate heat, for around 30 seconds. The last thing you want to do is burn them, but they must be completely dry before grinding. Once they have crisped up and begun to release their pungent aroma, tip the threads into a mortar, and allow them to cool before crushing them with a pestle.

To make an infusion of saffron, measure out the threads and dry-roast them if desired. Next, place them in a cup and add just enough hot water to cover them – start with a tablespoon. The threads will immediately start to release their colour into the water, and this will deepen and intensify over time. A minimum infusing time of 30 minutes is essential, but the saffron will continue to develop for about 12 hours. Some people like to store a saffron infusion in a tightly sealed jar for use over several weeks, in which case you should infuse them in boiling water.

When using saffron, either as a powder or as an infusion, the general rule is that you add it at the start of the cooking process for maximum colour, and at the end for maximum flavour. Some people like to have the best of both worlds by adding it early and reserving a little to add at the very last minute before serving.

Recipes in this Chapter

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