Saffron: World’s Most Expensive Spice
Saffron is a very expensive spice derived from the flower of saffron crocus. It is a member of crocus placed in family Iridaceae and is scientifically known as Crocus sativus. The flower can be distinguished by three stigmas present at the distal end of each carpel. The stalks joining the stigmas are known as styles. The stigmas are dried and are very popular in cooking as a seasoning and colouring agent. Saffron is native to Southwest Asia and is perhaps the most expensive spice of the world by weight. It is bitter in taste and has an iodoform like fragrance. This fragrance is due to the presence of certain chemicals namely picrocrocin and safranal. A carotenoid dye namely crocin is responsible for imparting golden-yellow hue to dishes when saffron is used as a colouring agent.
Saffron derives its name from a Latin word meaning yellow. The domesticated saffron crocus is a perennial flowering plant unknown in wild. The plant is known to flower in autumn. It is a sterile triploid form growing in eastern Mediterranean but believed to have originated in Central Asia. C. cartwrightianus is a variety that has been developed by artificial selection by crazy plant growers. The plant is sterile and thus, fails to produce viable seeds. Plants require human assistance to carry out their reproduction. Corms are used for growing a new plant. A corm survives for one season and upon division it yields up to ten cormlets which produce new plants. Corms are small globules that measure 4.5 cm in diameter.
In the spring season the plant produces about 5-11 narrow and vertically green leaves each measuring 40 cm in length. In autumn the plant produces purple buds. In October flowering heads appear and they range in colour from light pastel shade of lilac to a darker and more striated mauve. During the flowering time the plant attains a height of 30 cm. three prolonged styles appear from each flower. Each later on gets terminated into a crimson coloured stigma measuring 25-30 mm in length.
Saffron plants are known to tolerate winter frosts up to -10°C and very short periods of snow cover. Irrigation is required if not grown in moist climates like Kashmir wher the average rainfall is 1,000-1,500 mm. spring rains and drier summers are very essential for plant growth. They are liable to be damaged by digging actions of rabbits, rats, and birds. Nematodes, leaf rusts, and corm rot. They are planted in sloping fashion. In Northern Hemisphere planting is generally done if June. The plants prefer friable, loose, low-density, well-watered, and well-drained clay-calcareous soils with high organic content. Roughly 150 flowers hardly yield 1 gram of saffron. Saffron contains more than 150 volatile and aroma yielding chemical compounds. It also bears non-volatile carotenoids like zeaxanthin, lycopene, and various ?- and ?-carotenes. The golden yellow- colour of saffron is due to the presence of ?-crocin. This crocin in actual terms is trans-crocetin di-(?-D-gentiobiosyl) ester. Crocins are actually hydrophilic carotenoids that are either monoglycosyl or diglycosyl polyene esters of crocetin. crocetin is a conjugated polyene dicarboxylic acid that is hydrophobic, and thus oil-soluble. When crocetin is esterified with two water-soluble gentiobioses, a product is formed that is water-soluble. ?-crocin is responsible for making 10% of dry mass of saffron. The two esterified gentiobioses make ?-crocin ideal for colouring water-based (non-fatty) foods such as rice dishes.
The bitter glucoside picrocrocin is responsible for saffron’s flavor. Safranal, a volatile oil, gives saffron much of its distinctive aroma. Safranal is less bitter than picrocrocin and may comprise up to 70% of dry weight of saffron. Dry saffron is highly sensitive to fluctuating pH levels, and rapidly breaks down chemically in the presence of light and oxidizing agents. It must be stored in airtight containers. Saffron is heat resistant. Saffron is widely used in Saffron is widely used in Iranian (Persian), Arab, Central Asian, European, Pakistani, Indian, Turkish, and Cornish cuisines. Confectioneries and liquors also contain saffron. Medicinally they are believed to have antimutagenic, anticarcinogenic and antioxidant properties. They are also known to protect eyes from direct and bright sunlight and from retinal stress by slowing down macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. They are also used as dye in China and India as well as in perfumery.