What is the world’s costliest spice and why is it so expensive? What are its origins and uses? Saffron is the most expensive aromatic spice on the planet. There are only three collectible red stigmas per style of each flower and it takes about 75,000 purple Crocus sativus stigmas to produce a single pound of dried saffron. Gathering of the crimson stigmas is done by hand and then dried. These seem reason enough for its exorbitant cost. According to The Daily Beast in 2017, the wholesale cost of a pound of saffron is about $500 to $5,000 depending on its quality. It’s good to know a tiny pinch of this red-gold goes a long way in food preparation. Williams-Sonoma sells .03 ounce of Spanish saffron for about $19.

This treasured spice has been used since ancient times as a culinary flavoring and coloring. It has been used as a dye for fabric, a cosmetic and a medicine. Among its culinary uses is the flavoring and coloring of white rice, and adding a distinctive note and yellow hue to Spanish paella, fish and bread. In the fourteenth-century English cookbook, Forme of Cury, saffron was an ingredient in over half the recipes. Henry VIII so enjoyed saffron in his meals that he forbade the fashion of the day of using saffron as a colorant for the hair.

As a fabric dye, saffron achieves brilliant shades of yellow. Do you recall the writing of Homer in the Iliad when he jotted down “saffron-robed morning”? He also described the robe of Eos, goddess of the dawn as saffron-colored. In ancient times the saffron spice was used in skin improving cosmetics. It is said that Cleopatra included it in her beauty regimen. Today, it’s looked to for reducing dark spots on the skin, to protect the skin from UV rays and as an ingredient in some perfumes.

As for medicinal uses, saffron has been used since ancient times. Today, there appear to be no proven scientific benefits of such uses. WebMD.com suggests there may be some benefits in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and depression, but also notes that there’s no good scientific evidence to support many of the reasons people take it.

The origins of saffron may be found in the Holy Land. From the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament it is among the chief spices. In ancient Egypt, kings were anointed with perfumed oils such as saffron, myrrh, frankincense, cassia, and cinnamon. The Syrian king, Antiochus (roughly 215 B.C. – 164 B.C.), entertained in a lavish manner. His arriving guests were sprinkled with saffron, lilies or cinnamon. It is recorded that over 200 women served as sprinklers of these delicious smelling flowers and spices upon the numerous guests of Antiochus. In Rome, saffron was lavished through the Forum and perfumed the Roman baths.

It is believed that the Crocus sativas made its way from the Middle East to faraway lands such as England and Spain via armies, travelers and traders. When the Moors conquered Spain in 711 AD, they brought “zafran” meaning “yellow” with them. Saffron became popular in these areas but when the Dark Ages intervened, saffron days came to a halt; luxuries were a thing of the past.

Iran produces most of the planet’s saffron and uses this spice extensively in its cuisine. Saffron is used in Iranian foods to include savory dishes, ice cream and pastries. Most high quality saffron hails from Iran as the climate is so favorable. Other countries that produce saffron are India, Spain, and Greece.

The United States consumes the most saffron. To a small degree, saffron is grown in the states of Vermont, Pennsylvania and Washington. Growing your own saffron is a possibility here in Maryland. Buy your Crocus sativas bulbs from a reputable supplier to be sure you are purchasing the correct bulbs. These bulbs are Fall blooming and are to be planted in the Fall for possible blooming the following year. Your soil needs to be well-drained and the location a sunny one. You’ll need 50-60 bulbs to yield about one tablespoon of saffron threads. That should be more than enough if you use saffron in but a few of your dishes. A pinch goes a long way. Be aware that these bulbs do multiply over time.

If you haven’t tried saffron, consider purchasing a small amount and finding a recipe of your liking to try it out. If you fall in love, try planting some in your garden for future use. This ancient spice has held its worth over centuries and may be just the thing to spice up your cooking in 2022.

Barbara is an herb and spice enthusiast and enjoys them all year long from her garden, windowsill or from a jar. Barbara can be reached at barbara.s.aiken@gmail.com.

Please support OutLook by the Bay with a subscription.

OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.

Barbara enjoys history and is particularly interested in the history of Maryland.