Saffron

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Infobox on Saffron
Example of Saffron
Saffron.jpg
Facts
Origin -
Stowage factor (in m3/t) 1,98 m3/t
Humidity / moisture 9-10%
Ventilation 6 air changes per hour (airing)
Risk factors See text

Saffron

Description

Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus. Crocus is a genus in the family Iridaceae. Saffron crocus grows to 20–30 cm and bears up to four flowers, each with three vivid crimson stigmas, which are the distal end of a carpel. Together with the styles, or stalks that connect the stigmas to their host plant, the dried stigmas are used mainly in various cuisines as a seasoning and colouring agent. Saffron, long among the world's most costly spices by weight, is native to Greece or Southwest Asia and was first cultivated in Greece. As a genetically monomorphic clone, it was slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia and was later brought to parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania.

The saffron crocus, unknown in the wild, likely descends from Crocus cartwrightianus, which originated in Crete. The saffron crocus is a triploid that is "self-incompatible" and male sterile; it undergoes aberrant meiosis and is hence incapable of independent sexual reproduction—all propagation is by vegetative multiplication via manual "divide-and-set" of a starter clone or by interspecific hybridisation. If C. sativus is a mutant form of C. cartwrightianus, then it may have emerged via plant breeding, which would have selected for elongated stigmas, in late Bronze-Age Crete.

Saffron's taste and iodoform- or hay-like fragrance result from the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. It also contains a carotenoid dye, crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles. Iran now accounts for approximately 90% of the world production of saffron.

When saffron is dried after its harvest, the heat, combined with enzymatic action, splits picrocrocin to yield D–glucose and a free safranal molecule. Safranal, a volatile oil, gives saffron much of its distinctive aroma. Safranal is less bitter than picrocrocin and may comprise up to 70% of dry saffron's volatile fraction in some samples. A second element underlying saffron's aroma is 2-hydroxy-4,4,6-trimethyl-2,5-cyclohexadien-1-one, the scent of which has been described as "saffron, dried hay like". Chemists found this to be the most powerful contributor to saffron's fragrance despite its being present in a lesser quantity than safranal. Dry saffron is highly sensitive to fluctuating pH levels, and rapidly breaks down chemically in the presence of light and oxidizing agents. It must therefore be stored away in air-tight containers in order to minimise contact with atmospheric oxygen. Saffron is somewhat more resistant to heat.

Saffron is graded via laboratory measurement of crocin (colour), picrocrocin (taste), and safranal (fragrance) content. Determination of non-stigma content ("floral waste content") and other extraneous matter such as inorganic material ("ash") are also key. Grading standards are set by the International Organization for Standardization, a federation of national standards bodies. ISO 3632 deals exclusively with saffron and establishes four empirical colour intensity grades: IV (poorest), III, II, and I (finest quality). Samples are assigned grades by gauging the spice's crocin content, revealed by measurements of crocin-specific spectroscopic absorbance. Graders measure absorbances of 440-nm light by dry saffron samples. Higher absorbances imply greater crocin concentration, and thus a greater colourative intensity. These data are measured through spectrophotometry reports at certified testing laboratories worldwide. These colour grades proceed from grades with absorbances lower than 80 (for all category IV saffron) up to 190 or greater (for category I). The world's finest samples (the selected most red-maroon tips of stigmas picked from the finest flowers) receive absorbance scores in excess of 250. Market prices for saffron types follow directly from these ISO scores. However, many growers, traders, and consumers reject such lab test numbers. They prefer a more holistic method of sampling batches of thread for taste, aroma, pliability, and other traits in a fashion similar to that practised by practised wine tasters. Valuable stigmas, or threads, are tediously plucked, piled, and dried.

Despite such attempts at quality control and standardisation, an extensive history of saffron adulteration—particularly among the cheapest grades—continues into modern times. Adulteration was first documented in Europe's Middle Ages, when those found selling adulterated saffron were executed under the Safranschou code. Typical methods include mixing in extraneous substances like beets, pomegranate fibres, red-dyed silk fibres, or the saffron crocus's tasteless and odourless yellow stamens. Other methods included dousing saffron fibres with viscid substances like honey or vegetable oil. However, powdered saffron is more prone to adulteration, with turmeric, paprika, and other powders used as diluting fillers. Adulteration can also consist of selling mislabelled mixes of different saffron grades. Thus, in India, high-grade Kashmiri saffron is often sold and mixed with cheaper Iranian imports; these mixes are then marketed as pure Kashmiri saffron, a development that has cost Kashmiri growers much of their income.

Almost all saffron grows in a belt bounded by the Mediterranean in the west and the rugged region encompassing Iran and Kashmir in the east. The other continents, except Antarctica, produce smaller amounts. Some 300 t (300,000 kg) of dried whole threads and powder are gleaned yearly, of which 50 t (50,000 kg) is top-grade "coupe" saffron. Iran answers for around 90–93% of global production and exports much of it. A few of Iran's drier eastern and southeastern provinces, including Fars, Kerman, and those in the Khorasan region, glean the bulk of modern global production. In 2005, the second-ranked Greece produced 5.7 t (5,700.0 kg), while Morocco and Kashmir, tied for third rank, each produced 2.3 t (2,300.0 kg).

In recent years, Afghan cultivation has risen; in restive Kashmir it has declined. Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Italy are, in decreasing order, lesser producers. Prohibitively high labour costs and abundant Iranian imports mean that only select locales continue the tedious harvest in Austria, England, Germany, and Switzerland—among them the Swiss village of Mund, whose annual output is a few kilograms.Tasmania, China, Egypt, France, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Turkey (mainly around the town of Safranbolu), California, and Central Africa are microscale cultivators.

To glean 1 lb (450 g) of dry saffron requires the harvest of 50,000–75,000 flowers; a kilogram requires 110,000–170,000 flowers. Forty hours of labour are needed to pick 150,000 flowers. Stigmas are dried quickly upon extraction and (preferably) sealed in airtight containers. Saffron prices at wholesale and retail rates range from US$500 to US$5,000 per pound, or US$1,100–11,000/kg, equivalent to £2,500/€3,500 per pound or £5,500/€7,500 per kilogram. The price in Canada recently rose to CAD 18,000 per kilogram. In Western countries, the average retail price in 1974 was $1,000/£500/€700 per pound, or US$2,200/£1,100/€1,550 per kilogram. In February, 2013, a retail bottle containing .06 ounces could be purchased for $16.26 or the equivalent of $4,336 per pound or as little as about $2,000/pound in larger quantities. A pound contains between 70,000 and 200,000 threads. Vivid crimson colouring, slight moistness, elasticity, and lack of broken-off thread debris are all traits of fresh saffron. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world.

Oil content: 0.4 - 1.3% essential oils, in particular picrocrocin (saffron-bitter).

Application

Saffron's aroma is often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste has also been noted as hay-like and sweet. Saffron also contributes a luminous yellow-orange colouring to foods. Saffron is widely used in Indian, Persian, European, Arab, and Turkish cuisines. Confectioneries and liquors also often include saffron. Common saffron substitutes include safflower , which is often sold as "Portuguese saffron" or "açafrão", annatto, and turmeric (Curcuma longa). Saffron has also been used as a fabric dye, particularly in China and India, and in perfumery. It is used for religious purposes in India, and is widely used in cooking in many cuisines, ranging from the Milanese risotto of Italy to the bouillabaisse of France to the biryani with various meat accompaniments in South Asia.

Saffron has a long medicinal history as part of traditional healing; several modern research studies have hinted that the spice has possible anticarcinogenic (cancer-suppressing), anti-mutagenic (mutation-preventing), immunomodulating, and antioxidant-like properties. Saffron stigmas, and even petals, may be helpful for depression. Early studies show that saffron may protect the eyes from the direct effects of bright light and retinal stress apart from slowing down macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. (Most saffron-related research refers to the stigmas, but this is often not made explicit in research papers.) Other controlled research studies have indicated that saffron may have many potential medicinal properties.

Shipment / Storage / Risk factors

Saffron is very light-sensitive and hygroscopic and must therefore be well sealed and protected from light during transport. The product is therefore packaged in cans which are in turn packaged in boxes. Sometimes saffron is packaged in corrugated board cartons lined with aluminum.

Due to the high risk of theft, containers should be stowed such that the doors of adjacent containers face inwards and block each other.

In damp weather (rain, snow), the cargo must be protected from moisture, since this may lead to spoilage.

The increased risk of theft during cargo handling may be reduced by shrink or stretch packaging.

Packaging and cargo units should be checked for intactness each time they are handled.

Stow cool, dry, good ventilation.