For this, my very first Pantry entry, I am choosing an ingredient close to my heart: saffron. It is a common, yet still expensive, ingredient in Spanish cuisine that is prominently featured in many soups, stews and rice dishes. True saffron not only provides any dish with gorgeous color, but also with a delicate aroma and distinct flavor. The best quality saffron (called coupe grade in Spain) is easily recognizable for its pungent, musky and floral smell as well as its deep red color. The best saffron worldwide is grown in the region of Castilla-La Mancha, an area made famous by Miguel de Cervantes and his Don Quijote character.
Saffron is a spice obtained from the stigmas of the flower of Crocus Sativus Linnaeus, commonly known as Rose of Saffron. Its cultivation was widely spread in Asia Minor far before the birth of Christ. Saffron needs an extreme climate: hot and dry summers and cold winters. The sowing takes place in the months of June and July. The harvesting begins between October and November. The rose of saffron blooms at dawn and it withers quickly causing the stigmas to lose color and aroma. It needs to be picked before mid morning. The process is completely done by hand, as is the separation of the petals and stigmas. My own grandmother had a little patch of saffron and I remember the delicate process of separating the stigmas without damaging them. It is an interesting fact that more than 85.000 flowers are needed to obtain just one pound of saffron, making it the most expensive spice by weight. It can retail for $600 to $2000 a pound depending on origin and quality. Beware of cheap saffron. Often times you are only getting marigold threads or, at best, safflower which lack any of the aroma and properties of true saffron.
In culinary terms, saffron (or azafrán in Spanish) is indispensable for dishes such as Paella Valenciana, Caldereta de Pescado or Cocido Madrileño.
Saffron also has quite a long list of medicinal properties. It has been used for asthma, persistent cough and even pertussis (whooping cough). It soothes the lining of the respiratory system and acts as an expectorant. It is also used for insomnia, slowing down atherosclerosis, dispelling intestinal gas and against depression. Traditionally, women have used saffron for menstrual cramps and symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). It also has been shown to improve age-related macular degeneration. Saffron contains a water soluble carotene called crocin. It appears that this substance has potent antioxidant and anticancer properties.
Although saffron is considered safe when consumed as a food, using supplements may trigger side effects. As little as two tablespoons of the herb in its original form can be toxic and even deadly. If taken in pill form, saffron can cause dry mouth, dizziness, drowsiness and headache. If taken in excess for prolonged periods it may lead to vomiting. Symptoms of possible poisoning may include sudden yellowish appearance of the skin, eyes and mucous membranes and dizziness.