Any idea what the world’s most expensive spice is? Well, the best quality in the world comes from Spain. The purple ‘rosas’ are tipped on the kitchen table and three stamens and a pistil must be plucked from each one. When they are heated during cooking, they produce a heavy aromatic scent, an aromatic oil and a water-soluble colour. Any guesses?
It’s saffron, and 50g to 70g of plucked saffron a day is considered a good day’s work. It takes a week for one person to get as much as half a kilo and about 1,60,000 blossoms are needed for a kilo. Then comes el tueste—the toasting. Only older women are trusted to do it. To dry the stamens, they are put in a sieve over a pan of charcoal. Weeks of labour are at risk.
Saffron, like caviar, has varieties which are considered superior and inferior. The saffron from Mancha is considered the world’s best: deep-red stamens, as long as the first joint of your thumb, packed and date-stamped. The second is from Rio and the third, Sierra saffron, has shorter stamens, easily recognizable since the yellow flower part is mixed in with the red.
By weight, saffron costs more than gold, but little enough of the former sticks to the hands of those who produce it. Landless labourers plant the bulbs on rented land, as an insurance policy. They plant anywhere suitable: around grape vines, or where winter wheat will grow later. The flowers of Crocus sativus appear overnight, around Santa Teresa’s Day on 15 October. In a landscape burnt brown by the sun, they are more like purple rugs than carpets. They must be hand-picked the same day, so the cultivators are out at dawn, for perhaps 19 hours of stooping. Not surprisingly, the crop has dropped by half since the 1930s.
The Arabs worked out the secret of saffron cultivation more than 1,000 years ago and gave the spice the name yellow—za’fran, though the Romans brought it to Spain. Now it grows in Aragon, Murcia and Old Castile. The best quality is from Manchuela, from Cuenca south to Albacete.
Saffron has been exported since the 1400s, when adulteration was also a problem. In Spain, the substitutes are safflower (yellow) and packets of dye labelled colorante, which contain tartrazine. In India, recipes mentioning saffron sometimes refer to the colour (and actually use turmeric).
Saffron has a unique flavour, a fabulous, subtle aroma and, for those reasons, forms part of that wonderful larder of ingredients with which I love to cook. It can be added to cream sauces for both seafood and desserts. I always add some to a clear tomato consommé. And of course, it is indispensable in Mughlai rice dishes like biryani, West Asian pilafs and the Spanish rice dish, paella.
Paella is made from short-grain, thick rice, and is eaten by the Spanish during the summer, often cooked over a barbecue on the beach. Since Spain has a coastline with numerous good beaches and great seafood, paellas often contain squid, prawns, mussels and crayfish. However, I have seen them being prepared at a picnic up in the mountains of Andalusia with rabbit and pork. Paella is named after the metal frying pan in which it is cooked. I find that a jalebi tawa does the job well and I use ‘boiled’ thick rice from Kerala, which is a very good and healthy substitute.
(Seafood and rice cooked together)
2 cups thick-grained rice (unpolished or ‘boiled’ rice is perfect), cleaned, but not washed
500gm seafood—large prawns, clams, squid, mussels
½ kg chicken with skin, cut into small pieces, across the bone
2 onions, chopped
4 tbsp garlic, chopped
1 jar pasta sauce
1 cup green peas (fresh or frozen)
2 red peppers, roasted and cut into strips
2 tbsp mixed herbs (parsley, marjoram, thyme)
2 tsp mild chilli paste (Kashmiri chillies ground with a little water)
1 litre strong chicken stock
2 tsp saffron, diluted in warm water
½ cup of olive oil
Heat the olive oil and fry the chicken until golden. Add the garlic and onion; let it sizzle. Lower the heat, add the chilli paste and coat the chicken with this. Throw in the rice, stir once and add the saffron and its water, pasta sauce and stock. Cook covered for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the rice is tender, but still firm. Add the herbs, peas (if frozen, add directly) pepper strips and seafood. Check for seasoning. Cover and cook until the seafood is just cooked.
Tips for the seafood:
Mussels and clams should be scrubbed clean and washed. When you add them to the paella, they open automatically with the heat. If they do not open, discard before serving.
Squid should be cleaned and cut into rings. If the prawns are small, clean them thoroughly. Keep some large ones on top for decoration with their shells.
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