The Timeless Allure of Saffron

The Timeless Allure of Saffron

A treasured substance once favored by Cleopatra and ancient Egyptian pharaohs remains a precious commodity today. Over thousands of years of cultivation, the harvesting of saffron has changed remarkably little: Three delicate red threads—the stigma of the crocus sativus—must be removed manually from each hand-picked crocus bloom. And it takes about 77,000 of these small purple flowers to yield a pound of saffron. Technology has yet to devise an automated replacement for this time-consuming task, so saffron continues to reign as the world’s most expensive spice.

Of course, when compared with other luxuries, this ancient product boasts a relatively modest price tag and eminent attainability. And considering the fact that saffron is consumed only a few threads at a time, from flavoring a pan of paella to giving a golden glow to a bundt cake, a little goes a long way. Its subtle-yet-distinctive earthy taste is suitable to a full savory-to-sweet spectrum of preparations, including risotto, bouillabaisse, curries, soups, puddings, and baked goods, along with tea and warm milk to help induce a soothing night’s sleep.

Historically, Iran has long been the primary producer of saffron and still contributes 90-plus percent to world market share. A high elevation in the northern plateau has proven ideal for growing this native plant, and skilled farmers have specialized in the crop for generations.

Fortunately, the Lehigh Valley now enjoys a connection with this culinary delicacy. Ali Almasi, a native of Tabriz, Iran, formed the South Bethlehem-based company Almas Foods International after moving here and earning a master’s degree through Lehigh University’s Technical Entrepreneurship program. His flagship brand, Zaffrus (zaffrus.com), launched in 2017 and a line-up of saffron and saffron-infused products continues to evolve and expand.

“I saw saffron as a cultural breach”—consumed far less often here than in his native country—“there was an opportunity in the market,” Almasi says. “And it fits in the category of healthy eating. You see a lot of health- conscious people who use saffron.” High in antioxidants, compounds in saffron are considered to be natural mood elevators and appetite suppressants. Science is studying its effect in improvement of memory, age-related macular degeneration, and a host of other health issues.

Of course, some local audiences required an introduction to this exotic seasoning. “We did a survey and a lot of people around here, especially younger people, didn’t know anything about saffron,” he says. “But if I asked, ‘Have you ever heard of saffron rice?’ they’d answer, ‘Yes!’” So that was a starting point for building familiarity—and a following.

To fit a consumer’s preference for color and flavor, Zaffrus distinguishes itself in the market by offering four grades of saffron threads: Standard, premium, super-premium, and organic. In fact, “Zaffrus Certified Organic Super-Premium All Red Saffron Threads” quickly acquired an enviable “Amazon’s Choice” designation, plus saffron geeks will be impressed to learn that each variety measures up to Category I-ISO 3632-1 standards. Beautiful packaging designed by Almasi also makes a cork-topped apothecary jar of Zaffrus saffron arriving in a handsome box ideal for gift-giving.

Additional Zaffrus products include Premium Saffron Powder in small “minion” containers that provide ready-to-use convenience. (Saffron threads should be briefly steeped in warm water to release the color and aroma before adding to a dish.) Saffron Infused Vinegar is another time-saver ready to splash into salads and dressings. Saffron honey, made with star thistle honey from northern Michigan, has become a top-selling item. Recently introduced Saffron Lemonade with Raw Honey & Basil Seeds can be found at Green Earth Natural Foods in Emmaus and Goosey Gander Deli in Bethlehem, with additional distribution points coming soon.

One non-edible item, Saffron Face Cream, reflects back to ancient times when saffron was added to the bathwaters of the rich and powerful. For centuries saffron has been used to brighten skin tones and reduce wrinkles. Saffron soap is currently in development as well. “We’re not a cosmetics company, but these are traditional uses of saffron,” Almasi notes.

If you’ve never experienced saffron, try it this holiday season. This special occasion spice will elevate the taste and appeal of countless dishes while delivering a delicious dose of healthful benefits.

Nuts About Saffron
Bharatkumar Joshi recalls Ali Almasi walking into Nuts About Ice Cream, the Bethlehem shop he operates with wife Rohini, and asking if they could make a batch of their signature exotic saffron-pistachio flavor—using Zaffrus saffron—to hand out as samples at a trade show he planned to attend. Joshi agreed.

The couple noticed a difference in taste right away. “It was a superior product,” Joshi says. Although they had been using a reputable brand of Spanish saffron for 30 years, the decision to change spice providers was easy. “Zaffrus is more fragrant and has a deeper color, and it’s all natural, not adulterated.” But for these passionate veteran ice cream makers, great taste sealed the deal.

saffron recipe photo

Saffron Pumpkin Dessert

INGREDIENTS
1/2 tsp. ground saffron
1/2 cup warm water
4 cups pumpkin cubes, 1-inch square
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup ground walnuts, or to taste

DIRECTIONS
Using a small mortar and pestle, grind saffron threads into a powder and stir into the warm water. Allow the mixture to stand for 5 to 10 minutes. Place the pumpkin cubes in a large nonstick skillet and pour saffron solution over top, then drizzle with honey. Bring contents of pan to a simmer over medium heat. Stir gently with a wooden spoon or soft saptula to distrubute honey evenly. Cover with lid and reduce to low. Continue cooking for about 10 minutes until pumpkin is tender and the liquid is reduced to a glaze. Chill thoroughly before serving with a ground walnut garnish. This dessert may be accompanied by fresh fruit or a favorite topping.

Serves 4

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