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.