Francis Bacon, articulating his opinion about zafran once wrote: “it make the English sprightly”. But it is not so with Pakistanis, who hardly manage to get the pure stuff these days. “I remember when our children were small, just a minute quantity of zafran dropped into water would instanteously turn it into an aroma-emanating golden solution”, recalled Mrs. Akhtar Qamar a gastronomic connoisseur.
In Germany the penalty for falsification was so harsh that the guilty parties were burned alive with their false zafran.
“But today what we get as zafran is so adulterated that, even after rubbing it thoroughly, you don’t get the anticipated outcome. As a result one ends up adding food color to cuisines”, she lamented.
“The only zafran of some reasonable quality is imported from Spain”, Mrs. Qamar rightly informed. Interestingly it was Muslims who had introduced zafran to Spain in the 8th century. Presently, Spain & Iran are the biggest producers, accounting for more than 80% of the world’s production. Though Spain is the largest exporter, it is Iran that turns out most of the total yield.
Kashmiri zafran once rivaled Spanish Valencia coup that is today generally considered the best. Thanks to its cool climate, rich soil with excellent drainage & organic content Kashmir is an ideal ground for this spice. Bur previously known as a major zafran producer, Kashmir is now vanishing from the scene due to its obsolete farming practices. On the other hand, despite not having ideal conditions, Iran by employing the latest techniques, had successfully produced & extensively marketed its zafran in the cut-throat competitive international market.
Falsified for centuries:
The purple crocus flower’s three stigmas are what we call zafran. Its color is bright orange-red which in high quality is uniform. Zafran bearing white streaks or light patches is inferior and when light specks appear in its powdered form it suggests adulteration.
Though it is most often falsified with dried calendula or marigold petals. The real threads are also soaked in oil to add weight. It takes some 150,000 flowers to produce one kilogram of zafran, making it (by weight) the most expensive spice in the world. Because of the high cost & labor intensive means of gathering, zafran has been falsified throughout the history.
Some two millenniums ago natural philosopher Pliny the Elder to had observed that zafran was the most frequently falsified commodity. And in 1400’s in Germany, rigid inspections became the practice, the penalty for falsification being just as harsh with the guilty parties burned alive with their false zafran.
Prized colouring properties:
The name zafran comes from the Arabic word that means yellow. French culinary term safrané means ‘coloured by means of zafran. In India its colour is considered the epitome of beauty and is the official colour of Buddhist robes. As a matter of fact a carotenoid dye, crocin, allows zafran to impart a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes & textiles. Its colouring properties have been as prized as its unique flavour.
Zafran used all over the world to flavor & color foods from Spanish paella to French bouillabaisse to Arabic lamb & chicken dishes to Indo-Pakistani cuisines, as well as in many Swedish & Cornish recipes.
Zafran is such an expensive spice, it’s important to get every bit of flavor out of it. This can be achieved by either toasting & powdering the threads or steeping the saffron ahead of time in hot water or broth.
In regulated doses, zafran is said to increase appetite & to ease headaches & hangovers. In recent decades, it has been recognized as a valuable remedy for catarrhal infections, useful in otitis, melancholia, enlargement of liver and spleen, as a nerve sedative, carminative, diaphoretic etc. It has also been used externally for bruises, rheumatism, & neuralgia. In regulated doses, it can be used as an abortifacient but in higher doses it may be fatal.
Due to presence of crocetin it indirectly helps to reduce cholesterol level in the blood and severity of atherosclerosis, thus reducing the chances of heart attacks. It may be one of the prime reasons that in Spain, where zafran is consumed liberally, incidence of cardio-vascular diseases is quite low. The crocetin present in zafran is found to increase the yield of antibiotics. Compounds present in zafran increase antibacterial & antiviral physiological activity in the body.