Yesterday, I gave you Patricia Wells' Chicken Stewed with Fennel and Saffron. I'm fascinated by saffron. It's expensive- scarily expensive; but luckily you don't need that much of the stuff to bring out the deep yellow colouring and the distinctive, metallic, oily, and petrolly flavours.
The history of Saffron goes back over three thousand years, when it was an important spice in the Ancient World. The name comes from the 12th century Old French word, safran. It's made from the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), a species of crocus in the family Iridaceae. Historically, it's also been used both as a medicine and as a dye.
What about the saffron you can buy in the shops today? Where does it come from? Spanish saffron tends to be mellow in flavour and aroma. Italian varieties are stronger. Even stronger still is the saffron grown in Greece, Iran, and India (although the Indian government has banned the export of its high-grade saffron). The pungent "Aquila" saffron (zafferano dell'Aquila) is grown exclusively on eight hectares in the Navelli Valley of Italy's Abruzzo region, near L'Aquila; introduced to Italy by some Dominican monk.
But in Italy the biggest saffron cultivation, for quality and quantity, is in San Gavino Monreale, Sardinia. Another superb saffron is the Kashmiri purple-coloured Mongra or Lacha saffron (Crocus sativus 'Cashmirianus'), which is almost impossible to get hold of, and when and if you do, you'll need to take out a second overdraft. I'm going to finish off by giving you an interesting link to a website I've just discovered: Vanilla Saffron Imports. I know nothing about this company (they're American importers of high-grade saffron), so if you decide to use their services- on your head be it...