How to grow saffron
Saffron, one of the glorious traditional spices that almost anyone can grow in their backyard or sunny patio, is said to be worth more than gold. A kilo of saffron is thought to be made up of 100,000 pistils (threads).
Saffron comes from the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), a small brown corm that produces fragrant, light-purple flowers in autumn with broad spreading petals and three brilliant blood-red stigmas that turn a deeper colour as they age. Those stigmas are the saffron, a word derived from the Persian za‘ferân, meaning yellow. The long, thin leaves appear after the flowers.
Where saffron grows
Twenty years ago, the bulbs were hard to find. Now, they are reasonably common, but beware of any that bloom in spring — they are probably not true saffron but another purple-blue crocus. The bulbs are small, about thumbnail size. Plant about 12cm deep in heavy soils, or deeper in sandy soils, from early spring to mid-summer while they are dormant.
Saffron needs to be in a light sunny spot, north-facing if possible as long day length increases flowering ability. As I’ve found to my cost, these plants will grow in a spot that’s shaded for half the day but it may not flower or, if it does bloom, you won’t get stigmas. Make sure your saffron is in true bright sunlight and not shaded by other plants.
How to grow saffron:
A light sandy soil with excellent drainage is best. The bulb beds should be watered in early summer, but restrict watering as soon as the leaves appear. While saffron will continue to grow for decades in one spot, you may end up with a clump of bright green leaves and no flowers. Lifting and replanting every three or four years will give a more reliable crop of flowers.
Once saffron begins to bloom in mid-to-late autumn, the flowers last from one to two weeks depending on the weather. Pick the bright red stigmas with tweezers, unless you are prepared to have bright yellow fingers for some weeks. These can be used straight away or dried on brown paper in a well-ventilated shady place — but it must be draught-free so they don’t blow away.
As you only get three strands of saffron per flower, saffron is incredibly valuable — not just for its rarity but for its pungency, a taste that no artificial saffron approaches. Saffron should be wrapped in small bundles in greaseproof paper and stored in a small sealed jar in a dark place, not the fridge, to keep its flavour.
Saffron is incredibly valuable — not just for its rarity but for its pungency, a taste that no artificial saffron approaches.
Uses for Saffron
Saffron was once used medicinally for many ailments, often more for its expense and encouraging colour than because of proven curative properties. Saffron tea was an old remedy for measles, to “bring out the spots”, and was given to moulting canaries or to scholars who suffered from “exhaustion of the brain”. It was also held to be an aphrodisiac, but there are few plants that either look or taste good that haven’t been so declared, from potatoes to tomatoes. The Puritans banned saffron, along with other spices, because it encouraged venery.
Saffron was a common ingredient in Lenten dishes for its restorative power, and saffron-dyed sheets were supposed to restore the ill or weary. It was also said to increase intelligence. Two stamens of saffron steeped in hot wine was supposed to be one of the most wonderful restoratives. As any warm, delicious drink is restorative, it was probably effective. Saffron was used by Cleopatra for her complexion and by the ancient Persians as a dye and perfume.
Saffron can also be used as a (very expensive) dye for greying hair or cloth. The fragrant petals can be added to pot-pourri or used as a base for perfume. As a rare extravagance, the stigmas can also be added.
Do not use saffron medicinally unless it is prescribed by a qualified and experienced practitioner whom you trust (trust, qualifications and experience all need to be present). Though a magnificent spice when used sparingly, large amounts of saffron are highly toxic. The effective medicinal dose of saffron can be all too close to a lethal dose.
Colchicine, from saffron, is also teratogenic, causing birth defects, and has been used to genetically manipulate some common horticultural plants, such as clematis. The variety C. montana var. rubens “Tetrarose” had its seeds soaked in a solution of colchicine, resulting in a plant with higher concentrations of pigment in both flowers and leaves, increased fragrance and larger flowers.
Saffron gives both colour and fragrance. It can be powdered, but it loses much of its subtler overtones and almost all powdered saffron for sale is artificial. It’s best to buy saffron as whole stigmas and, if you need it to be finer, grind it in a mortar and pestle before use.
The stigmas give their colour and flavour best when soaked in hot liquid for half an hour before using. Don’t be tempted to add the stigmas directly to food without pre-soaking, or to soak it for less time; although the colour spreads to the liquid in a few minutes, the fragrance needs time to percolate and develop.
Saffron is wonderful in cakes or biscuits, made into saffron rice or potatoes, essential to give piquancy to seafood paellas and to give colour and bite to cheeses, creams and rice puddings.
Golden Potato Eggs
This superb dish shows how humble ingredients are transformed by spice.
- 3 saffron stigmas
- 12 small new potatoes, peeled
- 2L chicken or vegetable stock (the vegetable stock should be heavy on the celery)
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 6 red onions, peeled & chopped
- ½ cup currants
- ½ cup pine kernels, toasted
- Heat 1 cup of stock, remove from the heat and add the saffron. Leave for two hours. If it isn’t golden, the saffron is either too elderly or not true saffron. Make something else.
- Sauté the onion in the olive oil. Place potatoes, stock, sautéed onion and currants in a pot; simmer on a low heat until the potatoes are beginning to melt and the liquid thickens and reduces to a sauce. Sprinkle with the pine kernels just before serving.
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