Do you know which is the most expensive spice in the world?

There’s no contest, really. It’s saffron — by a long shot. The delicate, golden-yellow saffron threads add a distinctive color and fragrant flavor to many Mediterranean, North African and Middle Eastern dishes. The cost per ounce can be upwards of $200, but luckily it is sold by the gram and usually only a few precious threads are needed in a recipe. If you have ever eaten the Spanish seafood stew paella, you will recognize saffron as the indispensable seasoning in that iconic dish. It is also traditionally used in Mediterranean fish soups like bouillabaisse, Italian risottos and Indian curries. Sweden, Spain and Italy also use the spice in breads and cakes.

Saffron is harvested from the extraordinary saffron crocus flower. Each crocus blossom only offers up about three ‘stigmas’ — the part of the flower that receives pollen — which are each painstakingly handpicked, plucked and dried. It takes more than 200,000 stigmas to make one pound of saffron: hence the astronomical cost. But like many valuable things, a little goes a long way. And it’s worth it.

To release its pungent flavor, saffron must be heated. Some recipes tell you to crumble saffron threads directly into your dish while others require you to steep them in hot water before adding them to your recipe.

A bottle of saffron can make a special hostess gift for your “foodie” friend, or for the holidays, especially if you combine it with a couple of recipes where it is an essential key ingredient. Maybe you will be lucky enough to score a dinner invitation when your friend makes use of your gift, or you could try cooking a dish with it yourself. The subtle, flowery flavor of saffron will pull you into the delights of a cuisine that is worlds away from the everyday.

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