Why the World Is Still Just Mad About Saffron

Saffron has been used for everything from cooking to medicine and aphrodisiacs. Food essayist Bonny Wolf talks with Liane Hansen about the allure of the ultra-expensive spice.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

While we were in Cairo, we walked through the historic medieval section of the city lined with shops selling fabrics, copper pots and spices. We came upon what looked like an ancient store. Inside the dusty shelves were lined with hundreds of jars of green herbs, yellow beans, red lentils, blue incense. Before our trip WEEKEND EDITION's food essayist Bonny Wolf asked us to look for such a place. The friendly shopkeeper let us smell us some fragrant eucalyptus, but I was interested in something else.

How much is that, the saffron?

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

HANSEN: I love buying saffron where it's found and not on the supermarket shelf.

BONNY WOLF: Liane, you may have been at the same spice market where Cleopatra shopped. She put saffron in her hot bathwater to enhance her desirability. It is a multipurpose spice used through the ages for making perfume, dying clothes and for treating many illnesses - depression, the plague, gas.

Today it's usually kept in the kitchen cabinet, not the medicine cabinet. Just know that whatever you choose to do with these threads of reddish gold, you will pay dearly. Saffron has defied technology and takes actual human labor, a lot of it.

The spice comes from the delicate fall-blooming saffron crocus that grows in countries on the Mediterranean and in India. Spain, Iran and India are all big producers. The Pennsylvania Dutch, by the way, have been growing saffron for centuries.

Each lavender flower has three tiny red-orange filaments that must be removed by hand. It takes about 75,000 flowers for one pound of saffron, hence its reputation as the world's most expensive spice - as much as thousands of dollars a pound.

Saffron threads are dried and packed in acrylic boxes or squat green-tinged glass bottles with corks. Fortunately, the good stuff is packaged in miniscule amounts and a little goes a long way - you don't need a pound. You can get two grams of high-quality certified saffron in a pretty bottle for as little as $12.

If this all sounds nutty, try bouillabaisse without it or paella or risotto. Saffron has a slightly bitter taste and a strong hay-like smell. Whatever it touches turns to gold - in color at least. And if you can't bear to see it eaten up, throw it in your bath and see what happens.

HANSEN: WEEKEND EDITION's food essayist, Bonny Wolf.

(Soundbite of song, "Mellow Yellow")

Mr. DONOVAN (Singer): (Singing) I'm just mad about saffron, and saffron's mad about me. I'm just mad about saffron…

HANSEN: This is NPR News.

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