Saffron is a spice of the Old World, known to the Romans and re-introduced to Europe by the Moors, who brought it to Spain. Pimentón, the dried and milled capsicum pepper, is a spice of the New World, discovered by Columbus who was after a fast-track to the Spice Islands.
Saffron (azafrán) is like gold, precious and expensive. It’s expensive because it takes the tiny stigmas of 75,000 crocus sativus to make a half-kilo of the spice. They come from a mauve-colored crocus that’s blooming now, late October into early November. The finest saffron comes from La Mancha (where it has denominación de origen) and Murcia.
Saffron has long been an ingredient in special foods, those served on fiesta days, for weddings and baptisms, for ordinary cooking, la comida amarilla is made with artificial yellow coloring.
The powdered yellow coloring is widely called azafrán, although it is not or else by the most popular brand name, Aeroplano. Many bright-yellow paellas served up in ordinary bars and restaurants contain not a wisp of true saffron.
Not to be substituted, however, is turmeric, another yellow spice, which has a powerful aroma of its own, used in many curries and has many good health benefits.
Real Spanish saffron is sold in natural threads (hebras) in sachets or plastic packets, weighing from a half-gram to two or three grams. One-half gram, about a teaspoonful of threads is enough for two or three meals.
Even at the dinner table Spaniards are said to love the roja y gualda. Foods colored red with pimentón or yellow with saffron are amongst the nation’s favorite dishes. La comida amarilla, the yellow meal is so appreciated everywhere in Spain, is best represented by paella but there are many more yellow dishes to experience.