Red saffron is harvested from the crocus plant which is grown primarily between the Mediterranean region and India. It is considered to be the most expensive spice in the world. With a uniquely sweet flavor, red saffron is primarily used in cooking, although it is well known for its medicinal purposes. It is also utilized for its color in dyes and paints and for its scent in perfumes.
The crocus plant produces small, light purple flowers in the fall. Two to three red saffron threads are inside each flower; while many flowers have these threads, known as stigmas, this specific crocus plant is the only one that produces saffron. The threads are hand harvested over a period of three weeks in the fall after the flowers of the plant have bloomed.
The majority of the world’s red saffron supply comes from crocuses grown in Spain and Iran. Other countries, such as India, Greece, Italy, and Morocco, also produce a fair amount of this rare spice. Each country tends to grow one or more different varieties, with slight variations in flavor, smell, and color. While all saffron is red in color, true red saffron has the yellow tip of each individual stigma removed. Saffron with a deep red color and only a small, trace amount of yellow tips left is considered the highest quality available. Once harvested, the threads are dried and packaged.
As each crocus flower only has two or three saffron strands inside, it takes nearly an acre of land to produce 5 pounds (2.2 kilograms) of red saffron. This, coupled with the need for harvesting by hand, makes this spice the most expensive, by weight, in the world. Ssaffron is so strong in flavor and color, however, that very little is needed when cooking; typically only one to two strands for a dish that serves four.
Red saffron is known for its honey-like flavor and a smell that many compare to sweet hay. When added to recipes, it produces a rich yellow color and distinct flavor; it is popular in rice, stew, and seafood dishes. Since saffron is dried, it needs to be added to some sort of warm liquid for its true flavor and color to shine through.
Saffron has been used for thousands of years in other capacities. In ancient Egypt, for example, red saffron was believed to be an aphrodisiac. It is also known as a fever reducer and for its ability to treat anxiety as well as menstrual cramps and issues with the liver or joints. Despite these uses, large amounts of saffron can be deadly, however. Due to the unique color of saffron, in ancient times it was often the primary ingredient in certain color dyes and paints. While it is still utilized as such in some areas today, it is most popular, outside of cooking, is as an ingredient in colognes and perfumes, typically as a top note.