Saffron – The Queen of Spices in Morocco

Piles of aromatic and colorful spices are a familiar and welcome sight in any Moroccan market and are used extensively in local cuisine. Turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, paprika, coriander, pepper and precious saffron are displayed in cone-shaped heaps, with anise seed, sesame seed, mint, parsley, garlic and other herbs and spices adding to the tempting display. While some spices are imported from their countries of origin, many ingredients are grown in Morocco, including the much prized ingredient saffron.

The word saffron is derived from the Arabic word zafaran meaning ‘yellow’ and has been mentioned in writings going back several centuries BCE. Saffron is harvested from the flowering plant Crocus sativus – a member of the Iridaceae (Iris) family and commonly known as the saffron crocus. Each saffron crocus plant bears up to four purple flowers, each of which has three crimson stigmas. It is these stigmas, together with the styles that connect them to the plant, that are used to produce the spice known as saffron. It can take up to 14,000 of these hand-picked crimson-colored stigmas to produce a single ounce of saffron, making it one of the most costly spices in the world by weight. Fortunately, its flavor and color is very concentrated, and a little goes a long way.

Originating in Greece and Southwest Asia, saffron was reported first cultivated as a crop in Greece and later cultivated in parts of North America, Oceania and North Africa – including Morocco. Greek mythology tells the tale of the handsome mortal named Crocos who fell in love with the alluring nymph Smilax. However, she rejected his attentions and he turned into the purple crocus flower. While this story is mere myth, the value of saffron is undisputed and in addition to being used as an ingredient in Moroccan cuisine, saffron traditionally has medicinal properties, being used for a variety of ailments including reducing fevers and cramps and to calm nerves. It is also used in perfumes and dyes. Indeed, Saffron can be described as the Queen of Spices.