Saffron is a good thing. The slender threads impart great flavor to dishes like paella and sformato, and a little goes a long way when making a lamb stew. When I lived in Dubai I made a milkshake that included saffron — one could purchase it (relatively) inexpensively in that region. And that’s the thing: it’s a costly commodity.
A recent search found a 1-ounce tin selling for $90. It can fetch prices nearing $10,000 a pound. It is the most expensive food on the planet. But there’s good news on the way, and it’s all about the Iran nuclear agreement.
Yes, John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, has, among other things, paved the way for Americans to legally buy Iranian saffron, which some consider the best to be had. (I have a stash of Spanish saffron, but will pick up some Iranian product as soon as it’s available stateside — I do know a guy in New York who says he has always had a source, a friend who hides it in his luggage, but his inventory is low.) Some analysts are speculating that the influx of Iranian saffron will result in lower prices, and that’s the good news to which I referred above. Spain and Afghanistan are no slouches when it comes to growing the crocus, the source of the luxury, but a few years ago I conducted a non-scientific study using saffron in a dish, and my lab subjects all agreed (in a blind test) that the Iranian-grown threads were superior.
Iran, according to recent figures, produces more than 80 percent of the 250 tons of saffron brought to market each year (it takes 150,000 to 170,000 flowers or so to make a kilogram of the spice, so the fields in that country are devoted to much more than oil), and if you travel there you will find saffron candy everywhere, as well as stews, kebabs, and desserts that feature the delicacy. Its distinctive odor practically permeates the air.
We have not yet reached that level of saffron nirvana in the U.S., but I am hoping that, before too long, I will be able to visit Central Market or H-E-B and choose between products from Spain and Iran. I know my paella and panna cotta will benefit. Will prices drop? I can’t answer that question with any authority, but with premium gasoline at $1.93 at some stations, one can hope.