We know we love the rich, earthy bitterness of the exotic spice saffron in pasta, risotto and seafood dishes, but what exactly is it, and why is it so expensive?

Saffron derives from the flower of the Crocus sativas plant.  Each plant makes three or four blossoms, and each blossom produces only 3 stigmas that form the thready strands that are harvested, dried and packaged for culinary use.  It’s easy to see why the price of saffron can range from $30 – $300 / ounce, depending on the type and quality.

Most saffron comes from the Mediterranean area, with Iran, Greece and Morocco leading production, but saffron production in Afghanistan has begun to compete with other markets.

Not only used in cooking, saffron has a long history of traditional medicinal uses as well. It is know to have anti-carcinogenic, antioxidant and anti-mutagenic (anti-mutation) properties, and the stigmas, as well as the flower petals have been used to counteract depression and slow the processes of macular degeneration and retinosis pigmentosa.