Up to 5000$ per pound: What makes saffron the most expensive spice on earth?
I want to make paella for dinner tonight. One ingredient is a spice called saffron. Since I don't have any at home, I go to the next larger store to pick some up. 5,99€ is quite a lot of money for one gram of anything. At 5990€ per kilo, saffron is by far the most expensive ingredient I have ever bought. So I had to find out what makes this stuff so expensive.
While doing some research I saw that very high-quality saffron sells for a lot more money than what I had just paid. With up to 5000 dollars per pound, it's about 10 times as much as you would pay for the second most expensive spice in the world (which is vanilla at just over 500 dollars per pound).
First of all, what is saffron?
Saffron is made of dehydrated or dried stigma - the female part of the saffron crocus flower. Each flower carries three red stigmas. The flowers bloom during a 6-week period from late September to early December. The best time to harvest them is in the early morning.
And why is it so expensive if it's just a flower?
As you can probably imagine, harvesting the three delicate stigmas from each flower is not something a machine can do properly. The entire process requires manual labor - a lot of it!
When I look at the tiny jar of saffron I just bought, I can see about 100 threads of saffron. And that's one single gram only! So let's say 100 threads. That means someone had to harvest stigmas from 34 flowers by hand and dry them. Then the saffron had to be packed and shipped to the store where I bought it.
The yield per hectare is about 1.6 pounds of saffron. The average yield of corn per hectare is 22,000 pounds. So it's not just complicated to harvest, saffron fields also stretch over large areas.
Saffron is grown in many countries around the world, such as Morocco, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Afghanistan, India, and even the US. But the majority of saffron is produced by female workers in Iran. Labor costs are low and the arid climate is ideal to grow the flowers.
What is saffron normally used for?
Besides tonight's (vegan) paella at the Lorenz residence, it's also used in different kinds of broths, as well as breads and marinades. Saffron can also serve as a golden dye or even as a happiness-inducing drug. Studies have shown that it can also reduce the effects of Alzheimer's disease, depression, and PMS.
And after all, paella would neither look nor taste the same without the most expensive spice on earth!