Saffron Threads: Spanish Saffron vs. Iranian Saffron
In Mediterranean cuisine, you’ll find just about everything is infused with saffron. This spice is taken from the three stigmas of the crocus flower, then dried to use in cooking. It not only adds a delightful flavor and aroma but it also imparts a stunning yellow hue that you’ll recognize in some of the world’s most iconic dishes. Spanish paella is just one of them, and without saffron, it would never be the vibrant and fragrant dish we know it as today.
The most commonly recognized Spanish dishes with Saffron are Paella and Arroz Con Pollo. In Iranian cuisine, saffron is used in many different dishes. Some of the most popular being Saffron Rice, Sholeh Zard, Joojeh 'chicken' kabob, Saffron and Rose Ice cream, Saffron tea and many others.
Spanish Paella w/ Saffron
Where does Saffron come from?
While the majority of Saffron is produced in Iran, a small portion of global output is also produced in Spain. One of the most significant types of Spanish Saffron is produced in the La Mancha region of Spain. In these parts, Saffron is considered to be some of the highest quality in the world, sold by the thread. It’s not cheap either, costing roughly $3,000 dollars per kilo.
Spain is said to be one of the largest exporters of saffron, they account for roughly 40% of the worlds Saffron export. However, the true Saffron prodcution of Spain is actually much lower. Spain produdes only 4% of the Worlds total Saffron production. So at this point you're probably left wondering, how its possible for them to export nearly half of the worlds Saffron when they only produce a very small portion of the global output?
The simple answer is that they are just middle-men. In other words, much of the saffron that is supposedly produced in Spain is cultivated elsewhere, hailing predominantly from Iran. Spanish distributers will purchase Saffron from Iran in bulk and relabel it. These supplier then mark up the price of the product to make a profit. Some sellers will even mix the Saffron with adulerated product or add moisture to increase the weight.
This makes things a bit confusing since Spanish saffron is often regarded as the highest quality. But is it? Some argue otherwise.
Persian Rice w/ Saffron
What Types of Saffron are there?
So, if Spanish saffron makes up a small percentage of the saffron exported, then who holds the majority? Accordingly, it’s Iran with a robust 94%. For Iran, it’s considered “red gold” for the country. Unfortunately, Iranian saffron also runs into problems because of previously imposed Sanctions againts the country. In this sense, Spain has essentially acted as a syndicate for the countries saffron exports.
For example, there are four types of Iranian Saffron. Those four are: Sargol, Negin, Super Negin, and Pushal. These types of saffron are simply the type of cut, which indicates the lentgh of the threads and also how much or how little of the yellow portion of the stigma it contains. The less orange and yellow portion of the saffron there is, the more expensive the Saffron is. Since these orange and yellow parts contain no culinary or medicinal benefits they essentially just add weight and cost.
Re-branded as "Coupe"
Re-branded as "La Mancha"
For both types of saffron – Spanish and Iranian – both countries produce some of the best saffron found on Earth. However, it's important to understand that there are many middle-men in this industry. Be cautious when ordering Saffron in stores and online and do your research on the company before purchasing.
Both Spanish saffron and Iranian saffron require great effort to produce. Because it’s the stigmas from the flowers that are the prized spice, acres of the stuff only yield a small amount. To put it into perspective, it takes roughly 75,000 flowers to be handpicked to produce just a single pound of Saffron. Thats about the size of a football field to make just one pound of saffron
Spain and Iran, as well as other producers of saffron, have different traditions and methods for drying the saffron. These differences, along with climate, soil, and topography lead to a difference in taste. These subtle differences in flavor are something truly special to have the chance to distinguish on your own palate.
How to find pure Spanish or Iranian Saffron?
- Ask your supplier or vendor to provide a copy of their Certificate of Origin, this document authenticates the origin of the product.
- Ask to see a Lab Analysis to reveal the potency/quality of the Saffron. Look out for and compare the levels of Crocin (Color), Safranal (Aroma), and Picocrocin (Flavor). Not all Saffron is created equal, having a much more potent saffron means you won't need to use as much to get the same results.
- If you opt-in for the more expensive "La Mancha Saffron", then be sure to ask for a D.O.P (Denomination of Protected Origin). La Mancha saffron is very scarce and the Spanish government regulates and limits how much saffron can be exported. If you choose to pay this premium price then you want to make sure you're not just getting rebranded Iranian Poshal Saffron.
Additionally, once you receive your Iranian saffron or Spanish saffron be sure to do some simple tests at home to make sure its the real thing. First, smell it. It should smell like a mixture of honey and hay, a rule of thumb is that Saffron should smell sweet but never taste sweet. It should also take some time to render your dishes that brilliant yellow hue. Adulterated saffron will bleed a dark orange or red color once infused in cold water, the threads will also turn clear right away. If you’ve purchased saffron that isn’t authentic, you’ll find the aroma, flavor and color just don’t match up. Of course, you can eliminate this woe by getting your saffron from a trusted source.