World’s Most Expensive Spice Can Boost Your Health

Angela Wood

Senior Contributor

Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice costing over $5,000 USD per pound. The delicate vermillion stigmas of the saffron crocus have been used for medicinal purposes and in cooking for centuries. It’s one of the main ingredients of Spanish paella and just a few strands of this magical spice can help boost your health and immunity in more ways than you can imagine.

A Brief History of Saffron

Saffron comes from the stigmas of saffron crocus flowers which thrive in dry, warm climates. This rare red spice has been on our radar for over 3,500 years and is said to be native to the Greek island of Crete and parts of Asia.

Throughout the centuries, saffron has been used in culinary creations, for medicinal purposes and in creative pursuits. In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra was said to have added a quarter-cup of saffron to her milky bathing ritual to attract potential suitors! The rare spice has also been used to heal wounds and reduce inflammation, it has been added to cosmetics such as lipstick, can be seen in artists paintings and during medieval times, monks would use saffron as a type of ink to highlight letters in documents and manuscripts.

Today, this precious spice is used in the preparation of Middle Eastern, Spanish and Asian cuisine, seasoning traditional paella, tagines and pilau dishes.

Where is it Grown in the World?

Although saffron is said to have originated from Crete and Asia, it can be found growing today in countries as diverse as India, Spain, New Zealand and England. Over 90% of the world’s saffron successfully grows in Iran and in Castilla - La Mancha region of Spain. Their sunny climates, dry terrain and the vast agricultural knowledge of their farmers make these two countries prime locations for the crops.

Saffron from both Iran and Spain is said to be of the purest grade and quality, coming from reputable farms and traders, although in countries like France, Afghanistan and New Zealand, there are also superb purveyors of this precious spice.

How is it Harvested?

Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice for many reasons. Mainly, because the process of cultivating and harvesting saffron crocuses is incredibly labour intensive. The strands from each flower are painstakingly picked and de-threaded by hand, taking time not to damage the delicate stigmas. 

There are only 3 stigmas per flower and farmer’s need in excess of 80,000 crocuses to bloom during harvest to create just one pound of saffron! The rarity of the spice, the sheer quantity of plants and time it takes to pick and dry just small amounts of saffron, makes it in some cases, more expensive than gold.

What do the Different Grades Mean?

There are different grades to saffron, each calculated on flavour, colour and aroma. The higher the number reflects the quality of saffron you’ll be purchasing. Grade 1, A+ or All Red saffron contains stigmas only. 

This is classified as 100% premium grade saffron, the purest and most expensive on the market. If you find yellow and white stamens blended in alongside the rich red strands the price will be lower per gram and quality slightly less. 

When purchasing, observe the threads of the saffron. They should be a rich crimson red in colour - flat at one end and tapered at the other, as you would see them naturally in the flower. The aroma should be fresh and flavourful, if there’s anything bitter or musty about the fragrance, it represents poorer grade saffron. 

Finally, the strands should be dry and brittle, any exposure to moisture can cause them to go bad. Highest quality saffron will be presented in a small air-tight container or glass jar, alternatively, you may also find good quality strands direct from farms in open-air markets throughout the Middle East and Spain.

What Are the Health Benefits of Saffron in Your Diet?

Adding saffron into your daily diet can make a world of difference to your health. Just a hundred grams of this aromatic spice contains 23% folates, 18% Vitamin A and a huge 135% of your daily requirement of Vitamin C to keep your mind and body in tip-top condition! 

The stigmas contain plant-derived compounds which can improve respiratory health, eliminate pain, help to improve sleeping, increase circulation and prevent diabetes. That’s not all, saffron can also treat depression and mood imbalances and improve the function of your immune system, therefore, you’re less likely to be struck down with bugs and viruses!

Popular Dishes to Make with Saffron

When you see rice dishes with an ochre/amber colouring to them, it’s likely that saffron has been added to give them their intense shade and flavour. Saffron can be found in abundant international dishes. It’s a main ingredient of Spanish paella, Moroccan tagines, Indian pilau dishes and even French bouillabaisse!

Foodie website Saveur boasts a plethora of saffron spice infused recipes for you to try and share with friends and family, including classic roast chicken with saffron, rosemary and lemons, a fragrant spice-based risotto using minimal ingredients and delicious Persian almond cake with saffron and rosewater!

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