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30 september 2021

I use more saffron than the typical American cook, in paellas and other Mediterranean or Middle Eastern dishes. Lately, on the advice of a professional, I've bought my saffron online from an importer who packages the stuff in corny old-fashioned tins written over with quaint attestations, claiming to be "specially selected and packed in Spain." The saffron is very inexpensive, which is to say it's expensive as hell but not as the more infernal reaches of hell. Internet reviews either rave about it, or give it zero stars because it is coy about its country of origin.

Ramin Ganeshram's global history of saffron offers a possible explanation: the saffron I'm buying is good quality Persian product, but thanks to tensions between Iran and the U.S., it can't be imported directly; it is first shipped to Spain, repackaged, and then re-exported. Ganeshram says that this is perfectly legal. It also seems absurd, but it's not a new absurdity. For many centuries, the saffron trade has been characterized by blockades, evasions, dissimulations, and a certain amount of hyperbole.

Through it all, Ganeshram argues, saffron has been unique in maintaining the highest value of all foodstuffs. Many other spices have had their weight-in-gold heydays, but saffron has always been worth its weight in gold.

This is not because it's hard to grow, or because it must be brought from far away. I can witness that saffron is growable in neglected parts of a Texas backyard. In fact, the corms, once planted, naturalize quickly and even start to volunteer here and there in unexpected places. I am expecting a crop shortly, this October. No, saffron is expensive because my "harvest," as overweening backyard gardeners like to call it, will suffice to make about one batch of paella – and that after pouncing on each crocus as it opens, over a period of a week or two, and painstakingly picking out the tiny strands inside. That picking cannot be mechanized. I process saffron the same way growers in Iran or Kashmir or Spain or California do it: one infinitesimal strand at a time.

The Marxist labor theory of value has been discredited, but the case of saffron might make economists think twice. The price of saffron has never come down because the labor needed to pick and pack saffron has never diminished, since antiquity. Ganeshram notes that saffron tends to be picked by women and children. The reasons are partly because their labor is so undercompensated, and is partly functional: smaller hands make for better picking. But even women's and children's labor has a cost, and when that cost cannot be reduced by automation or rationalization, the price remains perpetually high.

Saffron may be native to Greece. Its popularity spread laterally west and east, till the main saffron regions and corresponding trade routes stretched from Spain to Kashmir, and saffron cuisine flourished in Sicily, the Italian peninsula, the eastern Mediterranean, and India, but more than anywhere else in Persia. Persian cooking uses a lot of saffron, in many different dishes, both sweet and savory preparations.

Western cooks also adopted saffron, to some extent more as a dessert flavoring and even primarily as a food coloring. Nuremberg became the great European saffron entrepôt, and saffron was grown there too. Pirated corms made their way to England (where Saffron Walden in Essex is named for the local industry), and also to Pennsylvania, where (according to Ganeshram) the town of Lititz near Lancaster is still the saffron capital of America.

This peculiar geography reinforces the labor-intensive nature of saffron. Most dominant spices grow only in the tropics and must be shipped to temperate markets. If an exotic spice turns out to be easily adapted to new growing regions (like chili peppers), its value plummets and the export market dwindles to a few prized varieties that carry some cachet of terroir or heritage.

Saffron was easy to grow no matter where you took it. But while you can plant a few chili seeds in your back garden and get more peppers than you know what to do with, saffron refuses to provide such bounties. Even if you had a few acres and could plant it entirely to saffron, you would be overwhelmed by the harvest and still get less spice out of it than from a few pepper plants.

Saffron is also an important dyestuff and a component of cosmetics. The flowers left over from spice processing are useful as fodder. Saffron is said to have medicinal properties – aren't they all, but Ganeshram points to research that suggests that folk attributions of these virtues may have some merit. Ultimately, though, the great uses of saffron are culinary. If you can get enough together to make an impact on what you're cooking, that is. The tiny capsules of saffron you can't even get in a lot of American supermarket chains often don't reach critical mass and end up being pretty flavorless. Saffron in tastable amounts is earthy and rich, with a flavor profile that escapes description. Find some of that repackaged-in-Spain stuff and experience it.

Ganeshram, Ramin. Saffron: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2020.