Is It an Herb or a Spice?

You might be surprised at how often that question comes up. The answer is quite simple, and at the same time complex. Generally speaking, herbs are made from the leafy part of a plant, while spices come from any other part. Spices are best described as the dried parts of aromatic plants.  Many spices are not only valuable for cooking, they are indispensable in the world of medicine. While we find herbs growing across the world, spices are usual found in tropical and sub-tropical areas. Indonesia and East Africa provide the world with many of those spices that we can not do without.


Let’s start our discussion with one spice that we just cannot do without, especially if we like baked goods and ice cream. After Vanilla is our next most expensive. Originally from Mexico and Central America , the Vanilla orchid plant found its way to  Madagascar, off the coast of East Africa, where temperatures and other climate factors allowed it to flourish, Why is it so expensive, and I am not talking about the “Imitation Vanilla” that we find on grocery shelves, the one that so many of us of us use?

First of all it comes from an orchid plant that is slow to grow. The very small flowers, for many years could be pollinated by a bee, a very specific bee, the Melipona bee and that was native only to Central America, to set the seed pod. And, the tiny flower was open for only a day or two and to be successful, it had to meet its bee during that time. About a century ago a means of efficient pollination by hand was devised

Since I mentioned Saffron a moment or two ago, let’s talk about it. This is a spice derived from a Crocus flower. Unlike our beautiful spring Crocus, this one blooms in late summer or early fall. The bright orange stigmas and styles, called threads are collected and dried to be used as seasoning and coloring in foods.  Saffron is especially important in the foods of Spain and many Latin American cuisines. Why is it so expensive? Just picture field after field in Spain, where suddenly one or two Autumn weeks the plants come into full bloom. And those plants are very particular about where they grow. They grow best in gently sloping fields that slope toward the south. The flowers are very short lived. They bloom at dawn and fade by late afternoon. At that point hundreds of workers come into play and they have to go from row to row, picking only the open flowers. It very intensive, back breaking work and each row must be visited daily for several days to get every bloom at the right stage for harvest.

It takes 50,000 to 70,00 flowers to make just one pound of the spice. And, it takes between 20 and 30 hours of labor to get the flowers for that pound. And that is not counting drying, sorting, processing or packaging costs.

I use a lot of saffron in my cooking and I learned the hard way that here is one place where you need to know your seller because with saffron you get what you pay for. Chefs know that everyone is aware that you can buy it for a dollar a medium size package or $19.96 for a gram of high grade Spanish Saffron.  That’s $125 for a quarter of an ounce. It is widely known that because of its high value there is a lot of adulteration. Safflower threads, from a plant of a totally different genushas no culinary value are mixed in because they look like the real thing. Honey is added to increase the weight. Of course, you take the greatest risk when you buy powdered saffron. Heaven knows what you are getting.

We’ll explore this fascinating area a little more in coming weeks

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