Buying saffron can be a daunting experience especially if you are not familiar with saffron qualities. People who regularly buy saffron know how to identify pure saffron from imitation low quality saffron and that prices and qualities vary quite considerably.
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When buying saffron you must be aware of fraudulent sellers passing off lower grade saffron that has been dyed red as grade 1.
A little history of Saffron
Saffron is also known as azafran in Spanish, safran in French, safron in Geman, zafferano in Italian and kesar, kesram, khesa, zafran in Indian. Although the origins of saffron are confusing, we can almost confirm that it comes from Orient, because its cultivation was widely spread in Minor Asia far before the birth of Christ.
One of the first historic references to the use of saffron comes from Ancient Egypt , where it was used by Cleopatra and other Pharaons as an aromatic and seductive essence, and to make ablutions in temples and sacred places.
Saffron was also highly appreciated in the ancient Greece for its coloring and aromatic properties. It was used as a remedy to sleeplessness and to reduce hangovers caused by wine. It was also used to perfume bathing and as an aphrodisiac. Arabs used saffron in medicine for its anaesthetic properties. It was the Arabs who introduced the cultivation of saffron in Spain in the X century. Evidence of different kinds assure that saffron was an irreplaceable ingredient in the hispanic-arabic cooking of that age.
During the Middle Ages, saffron became well known in Great Britain. Legend says that, in the period of Edward III, a pilgrim brought a bulb of saffron hidden in a hole in his stick from the Middle East to the town of Walden.
There the bulb was grown and reproduced giving prosperity to the town.
During the Renaissance, Venice stood out as the most important commercial center for saffron. In that period saffron was worth its weight in gold, and even today it is still the most expensive spice in the world. But sadly its high price led to its adulteration, which then was often severely punished.
Henry VIII, who cherished the aroma of saffron, even condemned to death adulterers of saffron.
Cultivation and harvesting of Saffron
The cultivation of saffron needs an extreme climate; hot and dry weather in summer and cold in winter. The land must be dry, calcareous, aired, flat and without trees. Attributes that the Meseta of Castilla-La Mancha has, which has made it one of the most important production areas in the world.
The soil must be equilibrated in organic material in order to avoid risks of erosion, and have some depth that allows the water to drain so that the bulb is not damaged.
The sowing takes place in the months of June and July. The bulbs are placed in ridges of about 20 cm. depth. The distance between the bulbs should be of 10 cm. The sowing of bulbs is a very hard job because it is done by hand, and forces you to walk in a bent position for hundreds of yards. A machine follows the sower with a roman plough to cover the ridges.
The harvesting takes place between the end of October or the beginning of November. The rose of saffron blooms at dawn and should stay the least possible time in the plant because it withers quickly and the stigmas loose color and aroma, this is why they are gathered between dawn and 10 a.m.
Which part of the plant is used as saffron?
Once the flowers are gathered, stigmas are separated from the rest of the flower. The fact that hundreds of thousands of flowers are needed to obtain just one kilo of saffron gives us an idea of how hard this work is.
Why is the price saffron so expensive ? If you consider all the work that goes into cultivating and picking saffron the price is more than justified.
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