an ancient medicinal plant and the most expensive of spices, has always had a magical, addictive power. Cleopatra took saffron-infused baths to enhance her allure. Alexander the Great used it to heal the wounds of battle. Many Iranians believe that in its pure form, saffron works as an antioxidant, an antidepressant and a culinary weapon against Alzheimer’s, cancer and degeneration of the eyes.
In Iran, which produces more than 80 percent of the 250 tons produced worldwide each year, saffron is omnipresent, in stews, kebabs, rice dishes, sweets. A recent visit to a Tehran supermarket turned up at least a dozen saffron-infused products, including cotton candy, rock sugar to sweeten tea and sohan, a traditional saffron brittle toffee.
It is often said that saffron is worth its weight in gold because it is so difficult and labor-intensive to cultivate and harvest. For several weeks every fall, the crocus sativus flower blooms.
At that moment, saffron producers throw themselves into the harvest. They pick the flowers early in the morning, and on the same day gently tease the bright red, three-filament stigma from each flower and dry them. It takes about 150,000 flowers to produce a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of saffron.
Little wonder, then, that the precious powder has spawned a trade rife with the kind of deceptions and distortions typical of traffic in gems or illicit drugs: cheap substitutes, diluted shipments, false labeling. Today, a battle over the future of the “gold of cuisine” is underway, as its world is transformed by speculation and market upheaval.
Several scientists and saffron experts have banded together to form a movement they call “Saffronomics.” Their mission is threefold: to improve saffron production and marketing; to determine its purity and place of origin; and to impose order on an unregulated market.