Introduction and Historical Background
What is the most expensive spice in the world?
Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) was one of many explorers trying to find a direct sea route to Asia, which during the fifteenth century was thought to be rich with spices. Cinnamon and other spices were so valued in Columbus’s era that a new, direct route to Asia would have brought untold wealth to the discoverer and his country.
The world’s most expensive spice is saffron. The spice was highly sought after by the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Assyria, Phoenicia, Persia, Crete, Greece, and Rome. The term “saffron” comes from the Arabic word za’faran, meaning “yellow.”
The spice is obtained from the delicate stigmas of an autumn crocus, Crocus sativus, a species native to eastern Mediterranean countries and Asia Minor. Spain is the principal producer of saffron for world markets. Crocus sativus is propagated by corms. The blooming period for the crocus is approximately two weeks, after which the flowers must be picked while they are in full bloom and before any signs of wilting. Once picked, the three-part stigmas are removed from the petals before the petals wilt; this is a time-consuming process that can only be done by hand as the stigmas are very fragile. Then the stigmas are roasted and sold either as whole threads (whole stigmas) or powder.
In order to harvest 1 pound (0.45 kilogram) of the spice, between 75,000 and 100,000 flowers must be picked. Approximately 4,000 stigmas yield 1 ounce (28 grams) of the spice. In 2010 it was reported that wholesale price of low-quality saffron was $500 per pound ($1,100 per kilogram). The average retail price in Western countries is $1,000 per pound ($2,200 per kilogram), confirming its place as the world’s most costly spice.