Species of Saffron
A degree of uncertainty surrounds the origin of the English word "saffron". It might stem from the 12th-century Old French term safran, which comes from the Latin word safranum or from Arabic, az-za'faran, having unknown origin. Safranum comes from the Persian intercessor za'farān.
The domesticated saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is an autumn-flowering perennial plant unknown in the wild.
Its progenitors are possibly the eastern Mediterranean autumn-flowering Crocus cartwrightianus, which is also known as "wild saffron" and originated in Greece. The saffron crocus probably resulted when C. cartwrightianus was subjected to extensive artificial selection by growers seeking longer stigmas. C. thomasii and C. pallasii are other possible sources.
It is a sterile triploid form, which means that three homologous sets of chromosomes compose each specimen's genetic complement; C. sativus bears eight chromosomal bodies per set, making for 24 in total. Being sterile, the purple flowers of C. sativus fail to produce viable seeds; reproduction hinges on human assistance: clusters of corms, underground, bulb-like, starch-storing organs, must be dug up, divided, and replanted. A corm survives for one season, producing via this vegetative division up to ten "cormlets" that can grow into new plants in the next season. The compact corms are small, brown globules that can measure as large as 5 cm (2.0 in) in diameter, have a flat base, and are shrouded in a dense mat of parallel fibres; this coat is referred to as the "corm tunic". Corms also bear vertical fibres, thin and net-like, that grow up to 5 cm above the plant's neck.
The plant grows to a height of 20–30 cm (8–12 in), and sprouts 5–11 white and non-photosynthetic leaves known as cataphylls. These membrane-like structures cover and protect the crocus's 5 to 11 true leaves as they bud and develop. The latter are thin, straight, and blade-like green foliage leaves, which are 1–3 mm in diameter, which either expand after the flowers have opened ("hysteranthous") or do so simultaneously with their blooming ("synanthous"). C. sativus cataphylls are suspected by some to manifest prior to blooming when the plant is irrigated relatively early in the growing season. Its floral axes, or flower-bearing structures, bear bracteoles, or specialised leaves, that sprout from the flower stems; the latter are known as pedicels. After aestivating in spring, the plant sends up its true leaves, each up to 40 cm (16 in) in length. In autumn, purple buds appear. Only in October, after most other flowering plants have released their seeds, do its brilliantly hued flowers develop; they range from a light pastel shade of lilac to a darker and more striated mauve. The flowers possess a sweet, honey-like fragrance. Upon flowering, plants average less than 30 cm (12 in) in height. A three-pronged style emerges from each flower. Each prong terminates with a vivid crimson stigma 25–30 mm (0.98–1.18 in) in length.
Grades and ISO 3632 categories
Saffron is not all of the same quality and strength. Strength is related to several factors including the amount of style picked along with the red stigma. Age of the saffron is also a factor. More style included means the saffron is less strong gram for gram, because the colour and flavour are concentrated in the red stigmas. Saffron from Iran, Spain and Kashmir is classified into various grades according to the relative amounts of red stigma and yellow styles it contains. Grades of Iranian saffron are: "sargol" (red stigma tips only, strongest grade), "pushal" or "pushali" (red stigmas plus some yellow style, lower strength), "bunch" saffron (red stigmas plus large amount of yellow style, presented in a tiny bundle like a miniature wheatsheaf) and "konge" (yellow style only, claimed to have aroma but with very little, if any, colouring potential). Grades of Spanish saffron are "coupé" (the strongest grade, like Iranian sargol), "mancha" (like Iranian pushal), and in order of further decreasing strength "rio", "standard" and "sierra" saffron. The word "mancha" in the Spanish classification can have two meanings: a general grade of saffron or a very high quality Spanish-grown saffron from a specific geographical origin. Real Spanish-grown La Mancha saffron has PDO protected status and this is displayed on the product packaging. Spanish growers fought hard for Protected Status because they felt that imports of Iranian saffron re-packaged in Spain and sold as "Spanish Mancha saffron" were undermining the genuine La Mancha brand.
Countries producing less saffron do not have specialised words for different grades and may only produce one grade. Artisan producers in Europe and New Zealand have offset their higher labour charges for saffron harvesting by targeting quality, only offering extremely high grade saffron.
In addition to descriptions based on how the saffron is picked, saffron may be categorised under the international standard ISO 3632 after laboratory measurement of crocin (responsible for saffron's colour), picrocrocin (taste), and safranal (fragrance or aroma) content. However, often there is no clear grading information on the product packaging and little of the saffron readily available in UK is labelled with ISO category. This lack of information makes it hard for customers to make informed choices when comparing prices and buying saffron.
Under ISO 3632, determination of non-stigma content ("floral waste content") and other extraneous matter such as inorganic material ("ash") are also key. Grading standards are set by the International Organization for Standardization, a federation of national standards bodies. ISO 3632 deals exclusively with saffron and establishes three categories: III (poorest quality), II, and I (finest quality). Formerly there was also category IV, which was below category III. Samples are assigned categories by gauging the spice's crocin and picrocrocin content, revealed by measurements of specific spectrophotometric absorbance. Safranal is treated slightly differently and rather than there being threshold levels for each category, samples must give a reading of 20–50 for all categories.
These data are measured through spectrophotometry reports at certified testing laboratories worldwide. Higher absorbances imply greater levels of crocin, picrocrocin and safranal, and thus a greater colouring potential and therefore strength per gram. The absorbance reading of crocin is known as the "colouring strength" of that saffron. Saffron's colouring strength can range from lower than 80 (for all category IV saffron) up to 200 or greater (for category I). The world's finest samples (the selected, most red-maroon, tips of stigmas picked from the finest flowers) receive colouring strengths in excess of 250, making such saffron over three times more powerful than category IV saffron. Market prices for saffron types follow directly from these ISO categories. Sargol and coupé saffron would typically fall into ISO 3632 category I. Pushal and mancha would probably be assigned to category II. On many saffron packaging labels, neither the ISO 3632 category nor the colouring strength (the measurement of crocin content) is displayed.
However, many growers, traders, and consumers reject such lab test numbers. Some people prefer a more holistic method of sampling batches of threads for taste, aroma, pliability, and other traits in a fashion similar to that practised by experienced wine tasters. However, ISO 3632 grade and colouring strength information allow consumers to make instant comparisons between the quality of different saffron brands, without needing to purchase and sample the saffron. In particular, consumers can work out value for money based on price per unit of colouring strength rather than price per gram, given the wide possible range of colouring strengths that different kinds of saffron can have.
Despite attempts at quality control and standardisation, an extensive history of saffron adulteration, particularly among the cheapest grades, continues into modern times. Adulteration was first documented in Europe's Middle Ages, when those found selling adulterated saffron were executed under the Safranschou code Typical methods include mixing in extraneous substances like beetroot, pomegranate fibres, red-dyed silk fibres, or the saffron crocus's tasteless and odourless yellow stamens. Other methods included dousing saffron fibres with viscid substances like honey or vegetable oil to increase their weight. However, powdered saffron is more prone to adulteration, with turmeric, paprika, and other powders used as diluting fillers. Adulteration can also consist of selling mislabelled mixes of different saffron grades. Thus, in India, high-grade Kashmiri saffron is often sold and mixed with cheaper Iranian imports; these mixes are then marketed as pure Kashmiri saffron, a development that has cost Kashmiri growers much of their income
The various saffron crocus cultivars give rise to thread types that are often regionally distributed and characteristically distinct. Varieties (not varieties in the botanical sense) from Spain, including the tradenames "Spanish Superior" and "Creme", are generally mellower in colour, flavour, and aroma; they are graded by government-imposed standards. Italian varieties are slightly more potent than Spanish. The most intense varieties tend to be Iranian. Various "boutique" crops are available from New Zealand, France, Switzerland, England, the United States, and other countries—some of them organically grown. In the US, Pennsylvania Dutch saffron—known for its "earthy" notes—is marketed in small quantities
Consumers may regard certain cultivars as "premium" quality. The "Aquila" saffron, or zafferano dell'Aquila, is defined by high safranal and crocin content, distinctive thread shape, unusually pungent aroma, and intense colour; it is grown exclusively on eight hectares in the Navelli Valley of Italy's Abruzzo region, near L'Aquila. It was first introduced to Italy by a Dominican monk from Inquisition-era Spain. But the biggest saffron cultivation in Italy is in San Gavino Monreale, Sardinia, where it is grown on 40 hectares, representing 60% of Italian production; it too has unusually high crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal content. Another is the "Mongra" or "Lacha" saffron of Kashmir (Crocus sativus 'Cashmirianus'), which is among the most difficult for consumers to obtain. Repeated droughts, blights, and crop failures in Kashmir combine with an Indian export ban, contribute to its prohibitive overseas prices. Kashmiri saffron is recognisable by its dark maroon-purple hue; it is among the world's darkest, which hints at strong flavour, aroma, and colouring effect.