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Buying Fake Saffron in Morocco

Real and fake saffron

While I was in Spain, I took a side trip to Tangier. I have always been a little bit curious about Morocco and, since the company that runs the ferry between Tarifa – a really great surfing town in Spain – and Tangier charges the same for a round trip ticket that they do for a round trip ticket plus six hour tour package deal, I decided to go for it. I knew that the tour would be touristy, but I wasn’t really prepared to walk around Tangier without any guidance.

The tour took us through the richer areas of the city and the more traditional souks. We saw everything from shops packed with raw chickens to shops full of handmade slippers. We ate some not-too-impressive food at a “traditional” Moroccan tourist restaurant. We got a hard sale on handmade Persian rugs. The best part, however, was not haggling with street vendors over the price of knock-off Rolex watches or rusty souvenir daggers. The best part was going to the “traditional” pharmacy, where our little tour group was given a hands on demonstration of all kinds of traditional herbal remedies.

Faux saffron

The guys at this place really had their routine down pat: introduce a product and how great it is, demonstrate it on the audience, then stuff a few packages into their shopping bags and hope they agree to pay for it. They were funny and entertaining enough that you almost forgot the fact that you were being heavily pressured to buy ginseng, ginger, curry powder, orange oil and ginko biloba. When they got to the saffron, my ears perked up. Could I get a good deal on saffron in Morocco, a country that does commercial production of the sought after spice? I bought a small package from the shop after they showcased the bright yellow color that their top-quality saffron would produce. Of course, they swore up and down that it was a great price – an added bonus!

Since I wasn’t cooking on my trip, I didn’t notice that anything was amiss until I got home and wanted to make my Saffron and Olive Oil Cake. I opened the package and thought that the saffron looked a little thick. I put a little water on one thread and absolutely nothing happened. I put several threads on a paper towel, wet them and waited. Still nothing happened! I rubbed the orange threads into the paper towel and was finally able to coax some of the bright orange dye, as well as a hint of yellow, off of the tiny sticks masquerading as saffron. I pulled a bottle of real saffron out of the cupboard, put some on a paper towel and dripped a bit of water on it. The bright yellow color appeared easily and clearly – no red in sight and no need to grind the saffron around on the towel.

I felt both amazed and irritated that I had fallen for it, but why would I have thought to check my saffron so thoroughly when I had just seen a demonstration? The answer was in the hard-sale performance that everyone I encountered on the tour put on. It’s a silly story to look back on now (especially since I had some real saffron in my pantry so the cake was not ruined), but it’s a scam that I’m sure they get away with all the time! If I ever went back, I would be sure to find that shop just so I could call them on it, but as it stands, I’m simply going to preserve my box of fake saffron for a while for story-telling value.

Real and fake saffron

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  • Belinda @zomppa
    June 15, 2010

    Oh wow! I would have never guessed either. Good to know for future reference!

  • Aria
    June 15, 2010

    So what do you think it really is?

  • Anna
    June 15, 2010

    I had the same experience when we went to Morocco nine years ago! The routine was just as you described, but add in some ‘complimentary’ shoulder massages to the mix.
    Yeah, they weren’t complimentary at all after the event. Luckily, we declined those too.

    I wouldn’t buy the saffron because it was more expensive that the saffron that I buy in the supermarket. The vendor was furious with me and said that the stuff I buy in the supermarket must be rubbish… it hadn’t occurred to me that their saffron would also be fake.

    Anyone I meet who has visited Morocco always comes home with a tale to tell, so welcome to the club ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Nicole
    June 15, 2010

    Aria – I actually think it is small twigs, or possibly dried flower stem bits, that have been dyed orangey-red. They’re not as fine as the real saffron strands. They have a slightly woodsy smell, but not much of it. Looking at just a few pieces, they look similar, but as I look at the whole container of it, it is just a much coarser and less uniform mixture off plant bits!

  • Amanda A
    June 15, 2010

    That’s so crazy but I guess that type of person/sales rep is every where you go. lol.

    I have some real saffron but have no idea how to actually use it.

  • Aria
    June 15, 2010

    Weird!!!!! Glad you figured it out. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Kalynskitchen
    June 15, 2010

    I went to Tangier years ago, and I feel for it too! Fun experience though, even if you don’t end up with saffron.

  • Megan
    June 15, 2010

    I did the same exact tour when I traveled to Tangier in February! I loved how the “pharmacists” wore white lab coats to look like real doctors. I bought some of the Mediterranean spice mix that I haven’t tried yet – now I’m worried it’s fake as well! I guess it’s all part of the experience ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Becca
    June 15, 2010

    What a story! As intriguing as Morocco is, I feel much safer limiting my foreign travels to Europe. But, I openly admit to being a travel wuss–DH gave up on taking me to Mexico or South America (he speaks fluent Spanish) years ago.

  • aroline
    June 16, 2010

    My friend brought me back some saffron from the middle east. I hadn’t had a chance to use it yet, but I was kind of suspect of it because of how cheap he said it was. As soon as I read this post I checked it on the paper towel. Several threads of the “saffron” didn’t bleed even half as much as the one thread in your pic and had the reddish tint too. Glad I I tested it out before trying to use it, thanks for the tips!

  • David
    October 1, 2010

    Just got back from Tangier and had the same ” tour “, thought I got a great deal, I will test when I get home.
    Quite the sales job !

  • Jenny
    March 1, 2011

    I wish I had seen this blog post before I went to Marrakech! The exact same thing happened to my boyfriend and me—we were ushered into a spice shop by a “guide” we couldn’t get rid of, and given the demonstration, tea, the so-called “moroccan hospitality.” I was a bit skeptical about buying anything there, but I figured I would just buy a little bit of spice since he had gone to all this trouble with the mint tea, etc. Well, I asked for some tagine spice, and as I turned around for my wallet, I didn’t notice the sales guy literally filling a HUGE bag with this spice! I didn’t want that much! But, I didn’t say anything at the time, and just paid for it. Then, he tried to push some saffron on us, and so we bought just a bit (this time I watched him fill it!). I tried to cook with the saffron today at home, and it melted to give my rice a pink color!

    Ugh, have to say it is pretty annoying, and I feel quite stupid for not having gone with my gut instincts. I would totally call that guy out on it if I went back!

  • Paula
    March 31, 2011

    The same thing happened to me!!! FelL like a duck… grrrr

  • Ben
    May 23, 2011

    The fake saffron, sometimes labelled saffran or safran, is actually the safflower. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe: if you’ve ever drunk the fizzy pop Tizer, you’ve drunk safflower concentrate.

  • christine
    August 3, 2011

    I had the same experience had the tour the man in the lab coat i too purchased spices had the neck massage but he did put the water on the saffron and it did run with the color yellow. I did cook with it and to tell you I really did’nt taste the saffron but oh well It was a nice trip.

  • Beth
    May 15, 2012

    Thanks for this warning! I recently found a quarter-ounce bag labeled “azafrรƒยกn flor” (“saffron flower”) at a local Mexican market. . .for 99 cents. I suspected it might be too good to be true but bought it anyway (at that price, why not?). Based on this post and a bit of further Internet sleuthing, I’ve determined that it’s definitely safflower. Saffron comes from a crocus (perennial, related to irises), while safflower is an annual that’s more closely related to daisies and sunflowers. According to Wikipedia, safflower has been cultivated for thousands of years, and there were even garlands of it found in King Tut’s tomb. So, while it might not be as much of a culinary powerhouse as saffron, I don’t think you should feel ashamed to have some safflower in your pantry, too.

  • g
    August 5, 2013

    Ben …Saffran, Safran are just the same word as Saffron in different languages. It’s not liek the word “Saffron” is a trademark that people knock off by subtly changing a letter or tow (as anyone buying adibas in Turkey could attest to).

  • Hichame
    May 1, 2014

    I am a moroccan that lived in the US for over twinty years, and believe me tourist guides will bring you to worst sellers whose aim is the get your money any way possible. i know they will pressure you to buy at their terms, but I would like to tell you there are a lot of honest sellers out there.

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