Red gold, or saffron, is an essential Moroccan spice that grows locally in the area around the Atlas Mountains. You’ll find saffron used extensively in Moroccan dishes like tajines, rice dishes and the traditional soup harira.
Taliouine, a village in the mountains, is well known for its large production of the crocus sativus flower that saffron is extracted from. And overall, Morocco is classified as the fourth largest saffron producer after Iran, India and Greece.
A lot of people know saffron as the most expensive and rarest spice in the world, which is mostly due to its difficult harvest process. Each saffron thread must be manually extracted from a crocus flower and harvesting is only possible for a short period of time – at most two weeks in any particular field.
With its precious flavor and hefty price tag, you’ll want to make sure the saffron you buy is the real deal. Brahim, the owner of the spice market I visited in Marrakech, brought out two examples of saffron to show us the difference between the good stuff and… the other stuff.
He pulled out a container of saffron and poured out several threads – the color was almost burgundy and the threads were small and dry. Then he pulled out a plastic bag from under the counter and removed some of the threads. These were scarlet red with flecks of yellow, and long and tangled. So, he asked us, “Which is higher quality?”
Well, besides the ceremonial removal of the special bag from under the counter, you could easily see a difference in the quality.
First the color. The saffron from the bag looked more vibrant and fresh. The bagged saffron threads were also longer and didn’t appear to have dried and cracked into smaller pieces.
Brahim shared that the bagged saffron, from Iran, was indeed of a higher quality. He also told us that because the crocus flower has three pistils that are pulled out together, you should look for saffron threads that are still connected in these groups of threes.
Because of its rarity and cost there is varying quality in the saffron that you’ll find at home and when traveling. Much of the saffron you’ll find isn’t actually saffron at all and has been mixed with a cheaper, more plentiful spice like safflower or turmeric.
Avoid the swindle and get your money’s worth with these tips for buying saffron:
You can also perform a quick and easy test to see if the saffron you have is legit. Place a small quantity of the threads in in water. Real saffron will gradually turn the water to a pale yellow color, and the pistils should keep their shape. If the threads start to fall apart in the water and the water turns an immediate shade of deep yellow or looks murky this is the artificial dye washing off – the quality of this saffron is questionable at best.
I'm Natasha Ho, a trained chef and avid traveler. I've studied culinary traditions from cuisines around the world, and I help food lovers learn how to cook a wide variety of meals that are consistently delicious so they can have more fun, ease and joy in their kitchen.