But, what is red gold?
Well, Cleopatra bathed in it.
And, Alexander the Great used it as shampoo.
It comes from a delicate flower grown from a bulb.
It is the most expensive spice in the world.
Of course, it is saffron.
I’ve you’ve ever eaten bouillabaisse or paella, you’ve no doubt had saffron. Or saffron couscous. Divine.
Saffron is the most expensive spice by weight in the world precisely because it is actually the dried stigmas of a little purple perennial crocus flower that must be gathered by hand during a harvest that lasts just a couple of weeks in the fall. There are only three stigmas per blossom.
It takes about 75,000 flowers to yield a pound of saffron.
Fortunately, a pinch (about 20 threads) is usually all it takes to impart saffron’s distinctive yellow color and vaguely metallic, dried alfalfa hay and bittersweet wildflower-honey flavor. Saffron is featured in Spanish and Indian cooking; it’s often a major component of curry powders; Iran, Greece, Morocco, and Italy also harvest and use saffron, too.
The best source I can suggest is a (another!) BBC documentary on saffron grown in Morocco and Spain. I found it fabulous!
Here are a few pictures of the autumn saffron harvest in Morocco. While you can see why it is so labor intensive to harvest these crocus stigma, the sad truth is that these Berber families reap only a small percentage of the prices paid. It is the same old story that has haunted the spice trade since time immemorial: the middlemen take all the profit.
Next time you price saffron in your market, you’ll know why the price is high.
Update: April 9. I just heard (on the BBC so you know it’s true!) that saffron reached England 2000 years ago when Phoenicians brought it to trade for tin. Never mind the Medieval spice trade!