When you buy saffron, you're getting more than just a spice; you're paying for an ancient and mystical ingredient with a long history of cultural significance. It is also one of the world's most expensive spices, at up to $5,000 a pound depending on the season and quality.
Saffron's high price is a result of its laborious harvesting process, short growing season and limited availability. It takes seven different crocus flowers to create the small threads of red gold that adorn most dishes. Each saffron flower only produces three stigmas each autumn and it takes hours of tedious work to harvest just one.
It also requires specialized climatic conditions to grow well and it can be very difficult to cultivate. It's best suited for countries with warm weather and plenty of sunlight. Iran, Spain and Italy are some of the largest producers but saffron is grown around the world.
This delicate spice needs to be picked at just the right time, before the flower wilts and becomes unusable. It's not unusual for saffron farmers to work 19-hour days in order to harvest enough threads for a single batch.
Saffron can be a little tricky to buy because of the high prices and there are a lot of fraudsters out there who sell imitations or low-quality threads for much higher than they should. It's important to look for a reputable brand that has been certified by the International Organization for Standardization. It should also be labelled as saffron threads rather than ground saffron and be stored in an airtight container.