Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world going for as much as $5,000 per pound. Vanilla, the second most expensive spice, doesn’t even come close costing only $600 per pound. Saffron is so absurdly expensive that it costs more per ounce than silver!
So why is it so expensive?
The use of saffron has been documented since before Christianity even started. Cleopatra was even rumored to have bathed in saffron-infused goat’s milk and Alexander the Great heavily used saffron during his Asian campaigns. Saffron has been used as seasoning, fragrance, dye, and medicine throughout the years. Now saffron is a widely used spice around the world and its price increases every year.
Saffron is the dried stigma of the Crocus sativus flower. These autumn-flowering perennials produce flowers within six weeks. It must then be harvested early in the morning as the sun degrades the quality of the flower and harvesters have to move fast to make sure they pick it all in time. Each flower provides just 3 stigmas and the rest of the flower is discarded. That means to get a pound of saffron, you’ll need to harvest 170,000 flowers and this must be done all by hand. This delicate task can only be done by skilled labor as no machine can do this without damaging the flower. To put it into perspective, you only have a few hours to harvest early morning, inside a window of a few weeks, once a year. And an acre of Crocus sativus will only produce just about 3-4 pounds of saffron.
After harvesting the flowers, the stigmas are meticulously separated from the petals by hand and graded based on quality. The cheapest quality of Saffron is called a bunch. It is the entire strand pulled from the flower that includes the yellow part of the stigma. Higher grades will have the yellow part removed and the most expensive would only have the tip of the stigma.
Iran produces 90% of the world’s Saffron supply mostly because the Crocus plant doesn’t need much water and suits Iran’s climate well. Despite Iran’s large contribution to the market, the most expensive type of Saffron comes from Kashmir in the northern part of India. The Kashmiri variant contains 30% more Crocin, a chemical compound that gives the spice its rich redness and unique taste making it sweeter and more fragrant than its Iranian counterpart. Now armed conflict and climate change are making it harder to produce. Farmers used to rely on rainfall and winter snow for water sources but climate change has led to the soil becoming dry and unsuitable for crops. This boosted prices even higher than it already is. Since then the National Mission on Saffron initiative by the government has focused on improving cultivation by providing irrigation facilities and educating the farmers about new methods in farming.
Despite the low yield and extensive labor required, the demand for Saffron is increasing. The demand is so high that many produce fake Saffron. Even the Saffron you have at home could well be fake. Fake Saffron looks real at first glance but might be corn silk threads, safflower, or even dyed horsehair. Some would even dye the lower part of the stigma and sell them as high-grade Saffron. In 2019 fake Saffron was discovered in Sussex, England that resulted in an international investigation. Saffron mixed with other lower quality ingredients was found being sold in shops and was traced back to a factory in Spain. Spanish authorities seized about $1 million worth of false Saffron in Alicante.
The small yield along with the extensive amount of manual labor is the primary basis of Saffron's value. Also, the spice gets harder to produce every year due to climate change which has greatly affected the annual yield of the product around the world. The demand grows every year and even with alternatives and fakes, the price of Saffron continues to increase.