The only plant in the Iris family of culinary importance, the Saffron Crocus, does not appear in nature - it is sterile, so must have been the result of human intervention. It may have originated in Bronze Age-Crete, but is now harvested as a crop from Spain through India and North Africa. The only part of the plant with culinary use is the stigmas, thread like components of the flower. These are used as a flavoring and coloring in many cuisines. They must be dried, causing chemical changes, before they are effective.
It takes 150 flowers to make 1 gram (0.035 ounce), which is about 1/2 tablespoon of very loosely packed threads. These threads must be carefully harvested by hand. In North America, a single gram can cost between US $2.00 and $16.00, depending on size of the package, grade of saffron, point of origin and what the retailer thinks he can get from his customers. The photo to the left shows 1 gram of Spanish saffron, with our ubiquitous red kidney bean for size comparison.
The largest producer, with something like 90% market share, is
Iran. Greece is next, then Kashmir and Morocco, with Afghanistan
rising as Kashmir falls. Saffron is also increasingly grown in
Australia, particularly for medicinal purposes. That available in
North America is most commonly from Spain, but Persian (Iran) is
Saffron is used particularly in the cuisines of Spain, Italy, Greece and the Islamic regions from Morocco into India.
Buying: Saffron should be purchased as whole threads as pictured above, because with powdered saffron you can't really know what you're getting. Several reliable Spanish brands are easily available on the Internet. Trader Joes usually has saffron in tiny glass jars at a decent price.
"Persian" saffron is also quite available on the Internet, but it's exact origin and quality may be more questionable, since trade between the U.S. and Iran is currently forbidden. I suspect, though, the government of Iran would be happy to trade some saffron for jet engine parts and uranium refining equipment.
Storing: Kept in a tightly sealed container away from heat and light, saffron threads will last well over a year.
Cooking: Saffron is very powerful, so is usually used in "pinch" quantities or a little larger. The desirable properties of the threads are water soluble, so they should be soaked in little water (or some say milk) before adding to a dish containing oils or fats. Fats may coat the threads and lock in the flavor and aroma.
Health & Nutrition: There is considerable ongoing study of the medicinal properties of saffron, which has been used as a medicinal for thousands of years. Current research indicates it may be effective against macular degeneration, Parkinson's disease and other nerve and brain disorders. Photo by Gut Gimritz distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.