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Saffron is the world’s most affordable luxury. This spice comes from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, a purple flower that blooms in the fall. The stigmas, which help form the female sex organs of plants, are dark orange.

Saffron originally came from the Middle East.and Asia.The word asfar is Arabic for yellow.

While Romans introduced saffron across Europe, it disappeared when they left and their gardens ceased to be tended. By the time it was part of the coveted spice trade, its export was forbidden from the Middle East. Pilgrims coming back from the crusades allegedly hid crocus bulbs in their staves and carried them back to England where the plant grew exceedingly well. Hence Saffron Walden, a market town in Essex.

Saffron’s rich orange colour leaches quickly into liquid. It has been used as a dye for hair and textiles for thousands of years. Saffron is a necessary ingredient in dishes as diverse as Mediterranean bouillabaisse, Iranian meals with rice and yogurt, and Kashmiri curries. It was commonly used in medieval European cooking and this survives in desserts such as saffron and lemon cake.

In very small quantities saffron gives foods a subtle briny flavour but a little goes a long way. A strand or two often works for most recipes. In even slightly larger quantities, foods can take on a bitter medicinal edge.

You might have crocuses growing in your garden this spring and you might be tempted to see if the stigmas would make good saffron. Well, dry them and try them; but remember it takes at least ten thousand stigmas to make a pound. That’s why it is so expensive. A small container of 3 grams costs about $5 but it should last a long time.

Most of the saffron we get in Montreal comes from Spain or Iran. Saffron is sold in small cakes, as a powder or dried strands. I prefer buying the strands. They keep almost indefinitely and I feel more secure with them than I would with powder that may be adulterated with other, cheaper ingredients. When a recipe calls for saffron powder, it is easy to grind a few strands.

Here is a recipe for a brilliantly hued saffron mayonnaise. It goes wonderfully with leftovers particularly cold fish, roast beef, chicken or boiled vegetables.

1 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon each white wine and vinegar
a pinch (1/16th of a teaspoon) of saffron threads
a couple of shakes (to taste) of cayenne, salt and pepper.

Warm the vinegar and white wine and add the saffron. Let this sit for a few minutes until the liquid is a rich amber and has cooled to room temperature. Add it to the mayonnaise with the cayenne, salt and pepper. Mix well and let the mayonnaise sit in the fridge, covered, at least a half-hour before serving.

© Barry Lazar 2000 Email Flavourguy

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