Zafran is a highly expensive spice that is used to flavour and colour food. The spice is actually the dried stigma - tiny thread-like strands - of the Crocus sativus linneaus, a member of the iris family. Each stigma is very small, and tens of thousands of individual strands go into a single ounce of the spice. Since the stigmas are hand-plucked from the individual flowers, zafran's - otherwise known as saffron - high cost becomes more understandable. In fact saffron is the most expensive spice in the world!

Zafran originated in the middle east, but is now also associated with Greek, Indian and Spanish cuisines. The flavour is distinctive and pungent and fortunately, a very little zafran goes a long way as it can added one thread at a time. In fact you only need a thread or two to flavour and colour an entire pot of rice!

If you are growing your own, harvesting saffron involves keeping an eye out for the three red stigmas that occur in each bloom. These should be harvested in the morning when the flowers have fully opened. Carefully remove them from the flower with tweezers and dry them off in a warm dark location. To avoid spoiling your crop, give your zafran  plenty of time to dry out and store it in a dark, tightly capped container.

Several zafran  cultivars are grown worldwide but for those who want the best quality spice only a few of them are known to be of a “premium" quality. The "Aquila" saffron is perhaps the best known, grown exclusively on eight hectares in the Navelli Valley of Italy's Abrozzo region. Another is the Kashmiri "Mongra" or "Lacha" saffron (Crocus sativa 'Cashmirianus'), unfortunately it is almost impossible to obtain such coveted and valuable plants. However you should still be interested in obtaining zafran  crocus they should be available as bulbs in your local plant retailer as soon as the autumn bulb displays arrive.

Saffron Facts

"Donning the saffron robes" is a poetic way of saying 'becoming a Buddhist monk'. The followers of the Buddha selected the colour saffron as the official colour of his priesthood shortly after his death, and the bright golden yellow robes have been the distinctive mark of the Buddhist monk ever since.

Zafran  is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine, India's traditional system of health that relies on natural products, prevention and balance. It is used in remedies for everything from arthritis and asthma to infertility and impotence.

Ancient Egyptians used saffron to treat kidney problems, and there are now research results that might suggest that one of the ingredients in saffron lowers - or assists in lowering - high cholesterol. There are even suggestions that zafran  may have been used against cancer in the middle ages, although with what success is unknown.

How to grow Zafran

Unlike its ornamental cousins which seem to be able to grow anywhere, the Crocus sativus is a tricky plant to grow in the British climate. This is all down to its Mediterranean origins, but by keeping to a few simple rules you should be able to create a perfectly acceptable environment that will produce a successful – although extremely small – crop of zafran  spice year on year.

Although its ancestors are now unknown in the wild, the domesticated plant that exists today requires a rich fertile soil that will reliably dry out and even bake during the summer. This hot dry period is vital as it creates the dormancy period required to trigger flower initiation in the autumn.

Traditionally the zafran  crocus was grown in raised containers to guarantee good drainage. This would have given the Tudor gardeners control over the root environment ensuring that the vital dormancy period occurs. In modern European commercial practices, the zafran  crocus is planted into pockets of land that slope towards the sun. That way they get almost all day exposure to the heat and light, as well as the excellent drainage provided from the sloping ground. It makes sense then to place your bulbs in a fully open and sunny site, and planted into a very well-drained soil.

Given the choice they grow best in a friable, clay-calcareous soil with a high organic content – back in the Tudor times a well rotted farm manures would have been applied before planting, but surprisingly no further applications were ever given.

Nowadays though, they are normally given a feed of potash at the end of the summer to help promote flowering. Plant them 6 inches apart, and - unlike most small bulbs - plant them comparatively deep, about 6 inches or so. This planting depth is another critical factor as this can affect the plants spice yields. The current rule of thumb is that the deeper the zafran  corm is planted the better the quality of spice is produced. Unfortunately there is also down-side to this as your plants will have fewer flowers and will produce less bulblets for propagation later.

Mice and squirrels can also be a real problem when you are trying to grow crocus as they capable of destroying trays of bulbs in a single night. Dipping the bulbs in liquid paraffin can sometimes work, but covering them with a very fine-mesh wire under the soil is usually the best method.

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