Exotic spices – Saffron and Vanilla
Today, I watched an exciting episode of “The Spice Trail” on BBC Knowledge that prompted this post. It was interesting to see what makes spices like saffron and vanilla so exotic and special.
Coming from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, it takes 75,000 blossoms or 225,000 hand-picked stigmas to make a single pound which explains why it is the world’s most expensive spice. Each saffron crocus grows to 20–30 cm (8–12 in) and bears up to four flowers, each with three vivid crimson stigmas,which are each the distal end of a carpel. Together with the styles, or stalks that connect the stigmas to their host plant, the dried stigmas are used mainly in various cuisines as a seasoning and colouring agent. Iran
accounts with 95% of the worlds production Spain only produces 300 kg, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Afghanistan produce most of the rest (in that order).
The programme showed how the Moroccans grow these flowers in small gardens and how they value it like gold. Families collect the flowers and hand-pick the stigmas to collect the saffron which is stored in boxes and locked like a treasure.
The main species harvested for vanilla is vanilla planifolia. Although the vanilla plant, an orchid, is native to Mexico, it is now widely grown throughout the tropics with Madagascar being the world’s largest producer. The Totonaca people of the Gulf coast of Mexico were probably the first people to cultivate vanilla plants. They taught many other indigenous people how to grow vanilla plants during MesoAmerican times, and they continue to cultivate the fruit that they consider was given to them by the gods.