Saffron is a fascinating spice native to the Eastern Mediterranean that holds two dubious claims to fame. Firstly it the most expensive spice in the world, the only other edible items that commands such a stratospheric price (apart from something you get from your dealer) is the white Alba truffle from Italy and Beluga caviar. Secondly, it is the most misunderstood spice, in terms of both identification and use.
The spice is simply the stigma of a type of crocus flower (Crocus sativus). The flower is strikingly beautiful, with six vivid violet petals containing three burnished golden stigmas. Here is the grabber, saffron must be gathered by hand and it takes 13000 stigmas to produce just one ounce. You don't have to do the math to realise that is a heck of a lot of work. That is why saffron is so stunningly expensive. I recently bought 10 grams of saffron wholesale in Australia. It cost AUD$25, making it close enough to AUD$75 an ounce and you can't even smoke the stuff!
There has always been much concern about adulterated saffron but as long as you shop at a reputable spice dealer there should be little worry. It is a very easy to identify saffron. Avoid any that is powdered and any that is uniformly red, as this is an indicator of dye. The real product will be as nature provided with 90 percent of the threads a deep full red, another 8 percent a pale gold and the tiny remainder almost white. When you break the seal on your package of saffron the aroma will be overwhelming, the mellow pungency of fresh tobacco mingling with citrussy highlights.
When cooking with saffron there is one hard and fast rule. Please repeat after me. Saffron is not about colour. The colour of saffron is undoubtedly appealing, but please try to forget this fact until your dish has hit the table. Saffron is first and foremost about flavour, with aroma coming a very close second. The colour should be treated as a bonus. If you are handing over big dollars just for saffron's colour, you are missing the point.
It is an essential ingredient in the almost mythological French seafood soup bouillabaisse as well as Spanish paella and the Italian risotto alla Milanese (recipe below), but it also has a multitude of other uses in the kitchen. I have recently been simmering wonderful autumnal pears in saffron infused syrup. It has often been said that a little saffron goes a long way and this is very true. However I can add this caveat; too much saffron can pull your dish down from the heights it would have otherwise attained. One of the myriad of flavour components that saffron provides is bitterness, which in small quantities can add a further dimension to the finished dish, use too much and your food will be overwhelmed.
For a simple introduction to the wonders of saffron try this risotto which is the traditional accompaniment to osso bucco.
Risotto alla Milanese
Bring the chicken stock to the simmer in a small saucepan and add the saffron. Heat the oil in a large heavy based pot and gently saute the onion for five minutes. Add the (unwashed) rice and stir to coat every grain with the oil. Stir like this for a few minutes and watch the grains. They will begin to go translucent with an opaque white centre. This is the rice's way of telling you that it is thirsty. Appease this request and add the wine. Stir the rice until it has absorbed almost all the wine. At this stage add a ladleful of the chicken stock and continue stirring. You may want to get yourself a glass of wine now because making risotto is a labour of love. It must be stirred constantly from beginning to end so that the starch contained in the rice is fully released, resulting in a rich risotto.
When the rice has taken in the first ladle of stock add more. Keep up this process until the rice is cooked (about 20 minutes), but remember not to cook it to mush. Each grain should have the slightest resilience when you bite into it. Add the butter and half the cheese, as well as the salt and pepper. Serve immediately and pass the remaining cheese separately. Serves 4.