Saffron : The Flavor and Fragrance of Joy

Iranian_saffron_1

by Michelle Krell Kydd

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.

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16 Comments

  • Elle: Fascinating article! I had no idea it actually had anti-depressant effects, but I do remember being delighted w/ dishes that used Iranian saffron when I was a child. Still love Iranian saffron and make a point of searching it out.
    That was quite a fate saffron adulterers met if caught.
    I look forward to next week’s installment of this Arabian Nights’ Saffron tale. 🙂 January 19, 2007 at 8:35am Reply

  • Marina: What a wonderful tribute to this amazing spice. Thank you very much for this Friday treat. January 19, 2007 at 8:44am Reply

  • March: You put a smile on my face just reading this article. I am a relatively recent convert to saffron in perfumery, and now am not sure how I could live without it. But I have always loved it in savory dishes like paella. I am looking forward to the cake recipe! January 19, 2007 at 11:37am Reply

  • Patricia Seybold: We have to wait a whole week for this cake receipe?….gads…it’s going to be a very long week…. January 19, 2007 at 11:52am Reply

  • violetnoir: Michelle, I love your writing. Thank you so much for this lovely article on saffron. It is also used as the top note in the new POTL, A.MAZE.

    Hugs! January 19, 2007 at 12:47pm Reply

  • Madelyn E: Dear Michelle, (and Victoria )
    Michelle . how well you write ! It is a pleasure to read of this most rare and exotic spice. When one speaks of the spice of life.. I bet they are referring to this special gift known as Saffron ! I love to bake . and am anxiously awaiting your treasured cake recipe !
    Antidepressant effects .. Oh My ! I will now run this weekend and scoop up some of this most precious spice. ‘By some coincidence All food seems to have a mood elevatng effect on me ! ( Evidently ).
    Michelle , it seems that saffron can embellish a dish , no matter what the culture, be it India , Iran , Spain or France !
    How lovely that Victoria and you discovered that delicious Indian dessert . Would I have loved to be at your table ,…for the cuisine, and the convivial company !!! Maybe next time .. as I live in NY !
    Will look forward to next Friday’s installment of Saffron: Part II!
    Madelyn E January 19, 2007 at 2:01pm Reply

  • Catherine: Hi guys,
    I just got back from NYC with some sample vials of Serge Lutens…Gris Clair, Daim Blond and Chypre Rouge and a sample of Chanel’s Cuir de Russie (which does NOT smell the way I remember from some decades ago..is it reformulated?)

    But the reason I’m writing is that I was reading older NY Times magazines on the flight and I thought (hoped!) that some of you would find mention of “Olfactory Cuisine” interesting. The write-up highlights a chef, Achats of Alinea in Chicago, who “has made use of pure scents” with foods “to be smelled but not eaten: skewers made from cinnamon, serving forks wrought from smoldering oad branches, pillows filled with coffee-scented air.” One entree served pheasant “over a bowl filled with oak leaves, pumpkin seeds, apples, cinnamon and hay: add hot water [to which is added hot water to yield the ambience of] a hayride, a mug of apple cider and dinner all at once.”

    Admittedly this hints of the overwrought or precious but I thought you all might find it interesting.

    Source: The New York Times magazine, December 10, 2006, page 63. January 19, 2007 at 8:45pm Reply

  • Fleur.de.Lys: I think that the writers for the New York Times must be reading Bois de Jasmin. The openning quote in the NYT article by Jon Fasman begins with the same Brillat-Savarin quote that Bois’ December Persian Orange Cookie article does. Coincidence? January 20, 2007 at 11:31am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Elle, I was fascinated by the article too. Now, in the process of trying Michelle’s recipe and developing my own, I am addicted to everything saffron. January 22, 2007 at 3:03pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Marina, I am so glad that you enjoyed it! January 22, 2007 at 3:04pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: March, Michelle shared an oatmeal recipe with me that includes rosewater and saffron. Now, the breakfasts in my house are not only very healthful, but delicious. It is a fascinating spice. January 22, 2007 at 3:05pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Patricia, it will be worth it! I know it, since I made the cake twice already when testing Michelle’s recipe. 🙂 January 22, 2007 at 3:06pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: R, I am very curious about POTL’s new fragrance. Looking forward to trying it. January 22, 2007 at 3:07pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Madelyn, here is the website from which I ordered saffron:
    http://www.saffron.com
    I have been cooking with different grades of saffron in the past, but this is the best one by far. Penzey’s Spices are also very reliable, and if you are near Grand Central, you can visit their shop. January 22, 2007 at 3:09pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Catherine, I am certain that even Chanel is forced to substitute and change their formulas. I still love Cuir de Russie and I am looking forward towards the new releases. Still, I am disappointed that the new Les Exclusifs are going to be in the EDT form only.

    Thank you for the link! Very interesting piece! January 22, 2007 at 3:10pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Fleur de Lys, interesting! Good thing, if it is so. 🙂 January 22, 2007 at 3:11pm Reply

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