Saffron production from Iran
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the market. Production of the spice relies directly on the crops of Crocus Sativus, the species of flower it is extracted from. A minutious process of extracting the stigma of the flowers, drying it and packaging it delicately ensures the maximum quality of the precious product but also increases its price. Here we go through each of the steps and their limiting factors.

Crocus Sativus crops

The flower plant of saffron is mostly grown in Mediterranean areas (Greece, Spain, Italy, Morocco) and particularly in Iran. Crocus Sativus needs a dry and warm weather with plenty of sun, ideally undergoing periods of rain in the spring and drier summers.

This species does not reproduce on its own – therefore making the job of the grower even more difficult as he has to divide and set available plants into new ones. To make things worse, if the grower (a professional divider!) picks the wrong bulb, the current plant will be ruined.

Manufacture of saffron

Saffron is the stigma of the flower Crocus Sativus (the red stick coming out of it). As such, it is a very precious, almost weightless part that needs to be individually collected and stored for further commercialization. To obtain 1kg of saffron, 110k-170k single flowers have to be processed (requiring 40h of work). Once collected, the stigmas have to be dried and preserved in airtight containers.

Do you start to understand now why it is so expensive?

Price of saffron

The price of saffron varies depending on its grade (purity). There are four different saffron grades. The grade is determined by lab testing of the main saffron components that represent its color, taste and fragrance (ISO standards). The reason for this very strict classification is that some producers were adding extraneous substances (like the yellow stigmas that are tasteless) interfering with the original product and benefitting from a cheaper production per weight unit and higher profits.

This said, its price oscillates between $1,100 and $10000 per kilogram, which reflects the effort put by growers, “dividers”, “stigma pickers” and distributors all the way from the flower reproduction to the finished, dry product. Consumers can get 1-2g (0.04-0.08 oz) of saffron for about $4-$6 at supermarkets and grocery chains.

Uses of saffron

The most widely spread use of saffron is in food, as in the Italian risotto alla milanese or Spanish paella. However, it has historically had an application in medicine due to its antioxidant benefits, and it has recently been shown that it has anticarcinogenic and antidepressant properties. Finally, it has also been used as a colorant for luxurious items in the clothing trade in India and China.

Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World's Most Seductive Spice
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(price as of Oct 16, 2013)