Saffron is a spice that needs no introduction. It infuses whatever it touches with a distinct golden hue, adding an aroma that resembles the commingling of hay, honeyed musk, leather and almonds. To taste saffron is to know how unnecessary words are in the vocabulary of pure joy. From discovery to repeated exposure, the flavor and fragrance of saffron is continuously revelatory, like a great passion that leaves one yearning for more. …
A majority of home cooks are familiar with saffron grown in Kashmir and Spain. Kashmir saffron veers towards the woody side of the flavor spectrum whereas the Iranian variety possesses a floral character which lends a fascinating beauty to the spice. Iranian Sargol (pure stigma, the yellow style removed) arouses synesthetic pleasure on sight; the crimson color is so rich that it appears infinite and one can easily imagine the feeling of fine velvet on the tips of the fingers by gazing at it. Combine this with an aroma that defies categorization and you have quite a seductive ingredient at hand.
Aphrodisiac and laughter-inducing qualities have been attributed to saffron in culinary texts and folklore. From a logical perspective, the preciousness of saffron, which is the most expensive spice in the world, would produce happiness in anyone fortunate enough to have access to it. Each saffron crocus has three stigmas and hand cultivation is still the method used to harvest the spice. Unethical hands have been known to adulterate saffron with coloring agents like turmeric and safflower, especially in the powdered state. This fact was not lost on a 15th century German tribunal called the safranschau; they were known for sending saffron adulterers to death by burning at the stake or worse yet, burying the guilty alive with the adulterated saffron they had sold in life—Dark Ages indeed.
The flavor of saffron fully develops once the stigmas are dried. There are three molecules that give saffron its distinct characteristics and they are safranal (aroma), picrocroin (bittersweet flavor) and crocin (coloring agent). Notes of saffron have been used in perfumery, but its use is restricted as the self-governing body known as The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) has classified molecules derived from the spice as skin irritants. This has certainly set limits on perfumers, but at the same time has inspired new creations that follow acceptable guidelines. L’Artisan Parfumer’s Safran Troublant is a wonderful execution of such creativity as are various fragrances which use the historic attar of saffron (saffron that is fixed in sandalwood oil) as inspiration.
I was introduced to Iranian Sargol saffron by Thierry Mugler’s Mojdeh Amirvand. I will never forget the day she carefully placed a round container wrapped in violet tissue paper into my hands. With eyes closed I held it to my nose and knew instantly that it was saffron (in retrospect, the violet tissue paper, the exact same color as the crocus sativa flower, was no coincidence). “Saffron will put a smile on your face and make you laugh,” she said, citing folklore from her native Iran. Apparently there is science behind the myth as recent research suggests that crocin and safranal have measurable antidepressant effects, Journal of Ethnopharmacology (2005; 97:281–4).
Saffron is a gorgeous addition to savory dishes like arroz con pollo, bouillabaisse, biryani, paella and risotto, but in sweet pastry and desserts it is worthy of worship. Perfumer Christophe Laudamiel and I discovered an Indian dessert called Badam Halwa at Chennai, a restaurant in New York City. The combination of ground almonds, ghee, sugar and saffron was profoundly haunting and cemented our friendship on the spot. Victoria and I had happened upon Pongal’s version of the treat and it was after this experience that a recipe was born, Gâteau Baiser De Safran (Saffron Kiss Cake). This cake is best served warm, but there is one caveat; you must share the joy of saffron with those you love (or wish to love), hence the double yield. Enjoy!
The saffron tale is continue next week with Gâteau Baiser De Safran (Saffron Kiss Cake) recipe.
Photo of Iranian Saffron © Bois de Jasmin.