As a kid, I grew up watching the Food Network. Through it, chefs like Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, Mario Batali, and others inspired a lifelong love of cooking in me. Unfortunately, as with many channels, the educational content in it has taken a nosedive in favor of competition shows. Nowadays it seems like Chopped is just about the only show on there. That’s not to say that those are bad shows, however. Some of them are quite entertaining. For example, there is a series called Worst Cooks in America. It’s a competition show where two Food Network stars get a bunch of people who don’t know a knife from a spoon and teach them how to cook.
I remember one episode of that show rather vividly. The contestants had just been taught how to make a fairly basic pasta and red sauce. As one of the contestants was plating their dish, they decided to get a little creative. Recognizing that fancy chefs will put a garnish on the plate to make it look nice, they decided to cast about in the pantry for something to add to their dish. When they served their dish to the judges, the judges noticed some bright orange strands decorating the side of the plate. The contestant was then shocked when the judges informed them that they had just wasted about fifty dollars worth of – you guessed it – saffron.
The most expensive spice in the world, saffron can cost over $10,000 per kilogram. For herbs like basil, parsley, and thyme, the valuable parts are the leaves and stems of the branches. For spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and paprika, parts of plants, especially their fruiting bodies, are harvested, dried, and ground. In either case, these are relatively easy to collect. But saffron is quite different. A saffron thread is actually the stigma of a saffron crocus, Crocus sativus. Each individual crocus only yields three threads, which must be plucked by hand, due to the delicate nature of the work. As a result, producing saffron requires huge amounts of growing land, and a massive work force.
Because saffron is an incredibly lucrative commodity, there is plenty of opportunity for bad actors to sneak in. In 2021, Europol captured a crime ring involved in smuggling and counterfeiting saffron in Spain. The smugglers were taking real saffron and mixing it with other dyed flower parts, and passing it off as high-grade saffron. In total, they attempted to pass off 10 million euros worth of saffron.
So those of you out there planning on making paella, beware the fake saffron.
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