The Spices Used in the Traditional Spanish Paella

The most important spice in Spanish paella is saffron, which is a spice is derived from the flower of the saffron crocus. The flower bears a three-pronged style (a style being a stalk that connects a stigma to a host plant), with each prong terminating in a crimson stigma. The styles and stigma are dried and used in cooking as both a seasoning and colouring agent.

Saffron has a bitter taste and with a little chemical inducement by way of a carotenoid dye called Crocin is able to impart a superb gold-yellow hue not only to food dishes but also textiles.

The saffron crocus is native to Southwest Asia but, interestingly, is sterile, meaning that the purple flowers do not produce seeds. Reproduction is dependent on the assistance of humans by dividing and replanting the corms.

The crocus grows well in Spain because of the strong sunlight and low rain conditions, apparently the best possible conditions being generous spring rains and dry summers. Plants flower in mid-autumn within a window of one to two weeks. About 150 flowers will yield 1 gram of dry saffron ‘threads’, little wonder then that saffron is the most expensive spice of all.

It is said that Cleopatra used saffron in her baths to make lovemaking more pleasurable because in both Egypt and Greece saffron was used to scent water as well as for perfumes, ointments and medical treatments.

There was even a “Saffron War” during the 14th century after the theft of a shipment when the demand for saffron-based medicine increased during the Black Death.

But let us return to the spices used in a traditional Spanish paella. There are many varieties of saffron of varying quality and therefore cost. It is rated by flavour intensity and depth of colour. It has been suggested that saffron from La Mancha in Spain has the highest possible rating (this does not mean to suggest that saffron from other countries has not also achieved this rating). Iran is in fact the largest producer of saffron. Other spices used are sweet paprika (pimentón dulce in Spanish), cayenne pepper, garlic and cumin. No doubt these spices have their own little story too. Alternatively, instead of buying all the ingredients separately, you can purchase a range of paella spices in sachets. Each sachet contains all the necessary spices to make paella, so then it would be a case of buying rice specially for paella and meat of your choice, such as chicken or rabbit and, of course, fish. As to which recipe to use, the choice is very wide and depends on tradition and region.

One last point: saffron in Spanish is azafrán.

Poinsettia – the Christmas Eve Flower

As a native of south Florida, I grew up surrounded by poinsettias that GREW IN THE GROUND!! Amazing!!! I never really appreciated that until I moved farther north where poinsettias were bought in pots during the Christmas season and carefully nurtured indoors.

I have two very distinct memories of poinsettias from my childhood, other than just taking them for granted. While we were living in West Palm Beach, Florida, we had a hedge, separating our house from the one next door, of tall white hibiscus with a thick row of what we called “fireball” poinsettias in front. It was evidently breathtaking. Strangers, probably tourists, would stop in front of the house and question us about the poinsettias. They had never seen anything like it!

My second memory of poinsettias was helping my mother make fresh-cut poinsettia arrangements for our home, church and friends. She would send me out early in the morning to cut the poinsettias (from the hedge), burn the cut stems with a match to seal them off and stop the flow of the “milk”, then submerge them in water for several hours. We had a large wash tub that we would fill with water and then weight the poinsettias down in the water with a brick or rock. The poinsettias supposedly soaked up the water through their leaves which kept them fresh indefinitely.

As an adult, I had the privilege of studying Spanish in a language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I learned there that the “poinsettia” was not a “poinsettia” at all but a Nochebuena-or Christmas Eve flower. That name seems so much more appropriate to me since the flower blooms during the Christmas season and after. After inquiring, it seems that the Nochebuena is native to Cuernavaca and was cultivated by the Aztecs. Since the Aztecs preceded the Spanish in Mexico, their name for the flower-cuetlaxochitl-should probably be considered to be its “official” name. But the conquering Spanish immediately renamed everything in Spanish, including the “poinsettia”. I must admit that for me, at least, it is much easier to say Nochebuena than Cuetlaxochitl.

Then, in the 1820’s, along came the first United States Ambassador to Mexico-a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett. He was enchanted by the beautiful shrub with large red flowers. He decided to introduce the flower to the United States by bringing cuttings back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Rather than bringing the Spanish name of Nochebuena back with him, he allowed his “discovery” of the plant to be the basis for William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, to name the plant Poinsettia in his honor.

So, as you and your family enjoy the presence of poinsettias in your Christmas décor, just remember that the plant is actually the Nochebuena-the Christmas Eve flower. Perhaps the Nochebuena will help all of us remember the true focus of Christmas-the birth of the Christ child on Christmas Eve.

Spanish Saffron

Saffron is one of the natural world’s most precious commodities. The value of this spice which comes from the stigmas of the dried flower saffron crocus is almost equal its weight in gold. The labor required to produce the product and its sensitivity to growing conditions are other reasons for saffron’s high value.

Although the plant’s origins are heavily debated, one of the more popular theories is that it came from Asia Minor, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. The Moors brought the spice with them during the Spanish invasion, which accounts for its abundance in the region. Spanish saffron, grown in a high plateau known as La Mancha, accounts for over 70% of the of the world’s production. Other areas of high-production include India, China, and other southward-sloping Asian countries.

Every year, for a brief period in October, the crocus flowers open up – meaning they’re ready for harvesting. By the next day, the Spanish countryside is awash in a beautiful purple carpet of saffron flowers. However, the beauty cannot be admired for long; the blooming period only lasts for a short two weeks. During this time, farmers work around the clock (even in day and night shifts!) to collect as many flower-stigmas as they can. Harvesting is a very difficult endeavor; farmers must pick the delicate, minute stigmas by hand which requires long, back-injuring hours. To yield one pound of quality saffron, 50.000 – 75,000 flowers must be picked, or the size of a standard soccer field! This certainly accounts for much of its value.

After harvest time, the farmers separate the reddish stigma and roast them on a sieve – this produces the saffron we use for food preparation, fabric coloring and medicinal purposes. In the town of Consuegra, the Fiesta de la Rosa del Azafran celebrates the end of harvesting season. Every year at the end of October, music and dancing fill the streets to celebrate a successful season. Azafran is the Spanish word for saffron.

Although saffron is grown in all parts of the world, Spanish saffron is renowned as the highest-quality. There are subtle differences between spices, but a professional is quick to detect the intense flavor and color brilliance of saffron that comes from Spain. Flowers grown on La Mancha produce the highest-grade possible.

Saffron is known for its bitter, hay-like taste – which sounds distasteful, but it’s actually quite the treat for mature palates. The spice is found in many cheeses, meat dishes and liquors; in Spain it’s commonly used as a condiment for rice. The Spanish dish paella, which combines rice, tomatoes and fish, also relies on saffron to give it the signature taste.

When buying Spanish saffron, it’s best to purchase the individual, dry stems. Many stores will offer the spice in the form of a powder, which is cheaper and relatively easier to find. However, powders are often cut with different ingredients, which make the saffron impure. Quality saffron should be kept in a cool, dry compartment, which will keep it fresh for 2-3 years.