Saffron is probably the finest, most expensive spice in the world - one could call it "the king of spices": there are 200,000 stigmas to 1 kg of saffron.
Native to Asia Minor, saffron reached Europe around the year 1000, and became part of the culinary tradition of many countries, like Spain and Italy. Today, it is one among few species that are cultivated in Europe, with France, Spain and Italy among the world's largest saffron producers. In Italy, saffron from Sardinia and Abruzzo have obtained the "Protected Designation of Origin" certification.
Saffron has been used in many different ways throughout history: as a remedy against a wide variety of ailments, as a base for perfumes, as a fabric dye, and as a brightly-coloured condiment for sweet and savoury recipes.
Saffron is derived from the stigmas of Crocus sativus. Due to its bright yellow colour, it is used as a seasoning and colouring agent in various cuisines throughout the world.
Crocus is a bulb-forming plant with narrow, pointy leaves and pale purple flowers that open towards the end of autumn.
The flowers have thin, vivid crimson stigmas approximately 3 cm long. The chemical compounds in the stigmas cause them to release a bright yellow colour into any liquids they come into contact with. Because they are so fragile, stigmas must be collected by hand: traditionally, this task has been given to women. As it requires such a time-consuming process, saffron is extremely expensive. However, a very small amount of this precious spice is enough to season a dish. Saffron is formed by a mass of crimson coloured, flexible, elastic threads mixed with other lighter and thinner that are less aromatic.
Saffron is a fundamental ingredient in several European culinary traditions. In Spain, it is added to delicate fish-based recipes such as paella and zarzuela. In Italy it is the main ingredient of risotto alla milanese, also known as "yellow rice". In France, it is added to bouillabaisse, the famous fish soup from Marseille.
Saffron has a penetrating, intense flavour with a slightly bitter after-taste. Due to its intense aroma, a small pinch is enough to enhance the flavour of soups, cheese, spiced bread, even a simple pasta dish with butter. Great chefs like to experiment with it, adding it to sweets, mixing it with chocolate or creams to create unusual, yet spectacular combinations of flavours.
Saffron was known and used in food preparation, as a dye and for medical purposes by the Greek, the Egyptians and the Romans. Homer, Virgil and Pliny wrote about it, describing its delicate aroma in different dishes. Ovid suggests an interesting explanation about the origins of its name: according to him, Crocus was the name of a young man who was turned into a flower for abandoning his loved one, the nymph Smilax.
Saffron was brought to Europe in the eleventh century by Arab populations, and eventually became part of many local traditions. For instance, a Saffron Festival is held every November in San Gavino Monreale, a small town in Sardinia.