Saffron – The stigmas of a wild crocus (Crocus sativus) native to the Mediterranean and western Asia are, pound for pound, the most expensive spice in the world. The stigmas of more than four thousand blooms must be plucked by hand in order to produce a mere ounce (28 g) of the spice. Saffron lends a yellow colour and a musty, floral aroma to dishes it is used in, but caution should be used because more than a pinch will yield a bitter, medicinal taste. It is widely used around the world to colour and season risottos, pilaffs, paellas, and many other traditional rice dishes, and is also an essential ingredient in such fish soups as the French bouillabaisse and the Catalan zarzuela.
The Swedes add it to buns and cakes to celebrate Saint Lucia’s day in December, and traditional saffron cakes are still available in Cornwall. Saffron is available as dried stamens (known as threads) and in powdered form; buy threads if possible because the ground saffron is easily adulterated with less expensive ingredients. For best results, lightly toast the threads before adding them whole or crushed to a dish, or steep them in warm liquid for 5 minutes to make an infusion.