Hello my dear readers,
First of all I would like to thank you all for your support. I do appreciate a lot every single one of you that stopped by and gave your honest opinion, thank you.
Now is time to get started and discover another delightful ingredient of our amazing world. Let’s start 2020 by discovering the most expensive spice in the world: saffron.
I guess you all heard about the most expensive, ancient treasured red spice called saffron, but let’s discover a little more about it.
Where does saffron come from?
Those who know at least a little bit about this precious spice, know that it is obtained from the pistils (stigmas) of a beautiful purple flower that belongs to the Iridaceae family and is called Crocus Sativus.
Among the many varieties of Crocus, the one capable of originating the saffron (the true saffron) is only this.
Normally each bulb of Crocus Sativus, has an average of 3-4 flowers, and each flower contains 3 stigmas inside.
This spice, from always considered, and rightfully, the most precious and rare, is used both as a colorant, but mainly as a condiment.
The origin of its name Crocus has a Greek origin, Kroke, that in fact means “filament”.
Its pistils are precisely filaments, and this is the exact part of the flower from which the saffron is obtained.
Saffron has been giving dishes a golden-yellow hue and an aromatic flavour, since ancient times.
The use of its stigmas is depicted in frescos from Santorini, which are as old as 3600 years.
The origin of saffron has until recently been a subject of speculation. But two independent studies recently have been able to trace its roots back to Greece.
Saffron around the world
8th century BC to the 3rd century AD, in the Greco-Roman classical period, the saffron harvest is first portrayed in the palace frescoes of Minoan Crete, which depict the flowers being picked by young girls and monkeys. One of these fresco sites is located in the “Xeste 3” building at Akrotiri, on the Greek island of Santorini (also known to ancient Greeks as Thera). The “Xeste 3” frescoes have been dated from 1600 – 1500 BC.
Ancient Greek legends says that defiant sailors, hopping to procure the world’s most valuable saffron, used to embark on long and dangerous voyages to the remote land of Cilicia.
Another best known Greek legend regarding saffron is that of the romantic tragedy of Crocus and Smilax: the handsome youth Crocus sets out on a pursuit of the nymph Smilax in the woods near Athens. They enjoy a brief period of idyllic love in which she is initially flattered by the amorous advances. Soon, however, Smilax tires of Crocus. After he continues to pursue her against her wishes, she resorts to bewitching him. He is thus transformed into a saffron crocus flower, with its radiant orange stigmas remaining as a faint symbol of Crocus’s continuing passion for Smilax.
Cleopatra, in the late Hellenistic Egypt, is said that she used a quarter-cup of saffron in her warm baths before encounters with men, in belief that the saffron would make lovemaking more pleasurable. Also, Egyptian healers used saffron as a treatment for all varieties of gastrointestinal ailments and urinary tract conditions.
The ancient Greeks and Romans prized saffron for its use as a perfume and deodoriser, scattering it around public spaces such as royal halls, courts, and amphitheatres. And when Emperor Nero entered into Rome, they even spread it along the streets.
The wealthy Romans used saffron in their daily life, using it into baths, as mascara, into their wines, in their halls and streets as a potpourri, and offered it to their deities.
Roman colonists even took their saffron with them when they settled in southern Gaul, where it was extensively cultivated until the AD 271 barbarian invasion of Italy.
Saffron cultivation in Europe declined steeply following the fall of the Roman Empire and competing theories state that saffron only returned to parts of Spain, France and southern Italy, with 8th century AD Moors or with the Avignon papacy in the 14th century AD.
Saffron-based pigments have been found in the prehistoric paints used to depict beasts in 50,000 year old cave art, in Middle Eastern, what is today Iraq. The Sumerians even used saffron as an ingredient in their remedies and magical potions but they did not cultivate it.
In the 10th century BC, saffron was cultivated in ancient Persia at Derbena and Isfahan. There saffron threads have been found interwoven into ancient Persian royal carpets and funeral shrouds. They also used it as a ritual offering to deities, as a brilliant yellow dye, a perfume, and a medicine.
Even Alexander the Great and his forces used Persian saffron during their Asian campaigns. They used to mix the saffron into their teas and dined with saffron rice. Alexander used saffron in his baths, hoping will heal his many wounds, and his faith in saffron grew with each treatment. In fact, he recommended saffron baths for the ordinary men under him.
Saffron cultivation reached also what is now Turkey, with harvesting concentrated around the northern town of Safranbolu, where they still celebrate the annual saffron harvest festivals.
In India, there are several variants that describe saffron’s first arrival, however beside using it in foods, saffron stigmas were also soaked in water to yield a golden-yellow solution that was used as a fabric dye. They loved so much the vibrant yellow colour that immediately after the Buddha Siddhartha Guatama’s death, his priests decreed saffron as the official colour for Buddhist robes and mantles, which they are using it even today. The dye has been used for royal garments in several cultures.
The saffron is mentioned even in ancient Chinese medical texts, one of each is the vast Pun Tsao, “Great Herbal”, pharmacopoeia, a tome dating from around 1600 BC and attributed to Emperor Shen-Ung, which documents thousands of phytochemical-based medical treatments for various disorders.
Nowadays, European Union and UK, try to promote saffron cultivation among impoverished Afghan farmers, as an ideal alternative to illicit and lucrative opium production. Furthermore, Afghanistan‘s sunny and semi-arid climate seems ideal for saffron crocus growth.
Between 1347 and 1350, when the Black Death ravage Europe, the demand for saffron and its cultivation skyrocketed, for its medicinal properties. Large quantities of saffron imports thus came from non-European lands such as Rhodes.
Saffron made its way also to Americas when Alsacian, German, Swiss and Dunkards fled religious persecution in Europe and settled mostly in Pennsylvania.
Since it was held in such high regard, the saffron trade became very profitable, making large quantities of gold cashed. The ‘saffron merchants’, Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, Europeans and Asians devoted themselves to this trade, and so saffron spread widely in those periods with trade and contraband too.
With the development of the saffron trade, rules had to be established to ensure fair market prices and the purity of the contents for each spice pack. The Safranschou code was issued and the fraud was declared punishable by sanctions, imprisonment and death at the stake.
Crocus Sativus is a bulb that has good resistance even in fairly cold climates, it resists in fact at low temperatures, down to -10 degrees Celsius and even in the presence of snowy periods.
In the absence of a climate with natural humidity, it requires appropriate irrigation.
The bulbs are to be planted in soils with southern exposure and in clayey-calcareous soils, sunny, inclined and well draining, to prevent rotting.
The average depth for planting them is between 7 and 15 centimetres deep and at an average distance of 3-4 centimetres, with some variations that the growers adapt according to the characteristics of each area.
In the period from October to February, leaves and stem develop, then, after the period called retirement, in the first autumn we will witness the first buds and then, towards mid-autumn the flowering.
Nowadays, this highly valuable plant is mainly cultivated in Iran, more than 90% of the saffron production. Due to its strength, saffron is cultivated in small batches even in countries like Switzerland and Germany.
During various periods, saffron has been worth much more than its weight in gold; it is still the most expensive spice in the world.
Why is saffron so expensive?
The harvest, very delicate and always manual, is done early in the morning, over a period of about two weeks. Only two weeks in the entire year.
It consists in picking the flowers containing the stigmas one by one and then in choosing them, always flower by flower.
It takes around 110,000-170,000 crocus flowers to produce just one kilogram of dried saffron or 50,000-75,000 flowers for 1 pound (450 g). To pick around 150,000 crocus flowers are needed around 40 hours of labour. And as such, it comes with a pretty high price tag. You’ll pay $10 to $13 per gram for the real deal.
How to know if it’s the real saffron?
When buying saffron, look for threads that are uniformly long and have an eye-popping color. Don’t bother with broken saffron, saffron powder, or threads that look dull and dusty, they’re not worth the cost.
Also, to make sure you’re getting the best stuff, take a sniff, you want saffron that smells a bit like sweet hay. It should also have all red stigmas, no yellow stamens.
This is definitely one of those spices where it’s worth it to pay more. So-called “bargain” saffron is probably very old or mixed with saffron styles (another part of the crocus) or marigold flowers.
Saffron in the kitchen
Saffron is responsible for that distinctive bright yellow color and flavor of Italian risotto alla Milanese, French bouillabaisse, Spanish paella, Indian biryanis and special desserts. Like truffles, some people find saffron completely intoxicating and addictive.
How to use saffron?
You only need a few threads to season and color an entire dish. Add them directly to a dish or steep the threads in a bit of the cooking liquid. Sometimes, if I have time I also like to soak the threads for a few hours or overnight in a little water, enough just to cover them, and then I use them in my cooking.
What does saffron taste like?
Saffron is extremely subtle and fragrant, some say it’s floral, some say it’s like honey, and some would just say pungent. The slightly sweet, luxurious taste is totally enigmatic, can be hard to nail down and it’s tricky to describe but instantly recognizable in a dish.
I know is annoying to say it, but you know it when you taste it. If you’re going for authenticity in dishes like paella, bouillabaisse, or risotto alla Milanese, you’ve got to have saffron. There’s really no substitute for its flavor.
We are used to hear about the virtues of saffron in the kitchen, because it gives us that unmistakable flavor, taste and the ability to give our dishes that intense color, but is also used in medicines, dyes and perfumes.
Even nowadays, saffron continues to be used by practitioners of traditional medicine, and is used to treat such afflictions as asthma, depression, and sexual dysfunction.
The most interesting component of the saffron that make it up is Safranale, which is a compound with great healing properties.
In fact, it is used for its ability to calm anxiety and positively affect our brain activity.
It is rich in Carotenoids and Lycopene, useful in contrasting ageing and also an adjuvant in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases.
It is able, through its active ingredients, to regulate the action and production of certain neurotransmitters, responsible for our mood, for example norepinephrine and serotonin.
Besides this, it is a powerful antioxidant, active in fighting free radicals and therefore delaying cellular ageing.
It also has an excellent digestive action, it is in fact present in many digestive liqueur preparations and has always been recognized as an aphrodisiac.
Taking a look back at history, it is clear that, in the past, saffron was sought after primarily for its magical healing powers for a whole range of ailments.
In different countries there is evidence of the use of saffron in traditional medicine, since it has the property of calming and treating simple, as well as serious ailments of infants, children, adolescents, adults and even the elderly.
In India, saffron is used mainly in Ayurvedic medicine.
It may be pricey but we all deserve to treat us well!
Have you ever tried any dishes with saffron? What do you think? Do you like it?
Thank you all for reading.
Join me next time as I will take you with me to discover one day in Milan, Italy 😉
And if you would like to discover more about our food, you may enjoy my previous posts
Wish you a wonderful day!