Saffron, jewellery of gods, kings and heroes
A legend in Greek mythology says that Zeus slept on a bed made of saffron. The Phoenicians already used saffron as a medicinal and an aromatic agent. They had probably encountered it through the Indians, and saffron was a luxury item already in the ancient times.
In ancient Egypt saffron is mentioned in the “Ebers Papyrus” and the Old Testament’s “Song of Solomon” praises saffron as the most precious spice.
At the court of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh only the court nobility wore saffron-dyed clothes. These clothes also belonged to the typical costume of Persian kings.
It is undisputable that in many cultures it used to be the custom to dye the wedding veil with saffron yellow. Rich Romans sprinkled saffron on their wedding beds.
Upon his arrival to Kashmir Alexander the Great set up camp in an area covered by lush grass plane. At dawn he discovered his army in a sea of lilac flowers which had blossomed overnight, even in the tents. The flower pistils dyed his clothes golden. He believed in witchcraft and so retreated without a fight. At least, that’s what the legend tells.
Through the fabled east-west route, the Silk Road, Afghanistan being one of the most important hubs, reached the spice Europe together with gold, precious stones and precious fabrics. There reigned the Dark Ages, as caravanserais already prospered and matured.
People of different ethnic and religious backgrounds: Pagans, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Muslims later lived in harmony on the trade routes in Central Asia. All sorts of wondrous goods were handled, endless stories were told at campfires thus creating the tales and legends of 1001 Nights.
The saffron plant
Saffron, from the Arabic / Persian زعفران, Za’faran, “Safran” – the botanical name being Crocus Sativus – is of a crocus genus and comes from family Iridaceae.
The bulb sprouts in fall, in early November it is ripe, and endures in the ground for the rest of the year.
The plant cannot produce a seed and multiplies only by dividing the bulbs.
Approximately every four years the bulb needs to be replanted to produce a good harvest.
When mature the saffron plant reaches a height between 5 cm and 25 cm. The flower itself consists of six lilac petals. Within the flower there is a light yellow pistil, which divides into three red stigmas. These three sweet, aromatic, and fragrant threads are removed from the flower through laborious manual work producing the precious dried spice – saffron.
The “Red Gold”
As long as people can remember, the hard work which saffron production requires has been looking for a match with no luck. The harvest is extremely tedious and time-consuming. To harvest a kilo of “red gold”, incredible 150.000- 200,000 flowers have to be picked. The daily harvest begins very early in the morning, so that the threads are not exposed to harsh sunlight. On the same day, the threads must be carefully removed and dried. It takes the pickers a whole day to produce a maximum of 80g of saffron.
Another barrier for the large farms is that saffron plants are only blooming once a year for a length of only two weeks. The rest of the year pickers have to exercise patience – the fields cannot be used in any other way. These are all reasons why saffron is the most expensive spice in the world.
Opium for children
Saffron is not only used as a spice, it is also used for pharmaceutical purposes in Ayurvedic medicine and in Chinese medicine. Saffron can help circulation, boost the metabolism and act as an antispasmodic. Saffron is also rumored to have an aphrodisiac and antidepressant effect.
In ancient times saffron was used as a sedative for children. It was prescribed even for cough and intestinal colic. And as Paracelsus once said: “a cheerful and good blood saffron brings.”
This combination of effects – antispasmodic, analgesic and mood-lifting – is characteristic for another very special substance: Opium! Drug connoisseurs from times long past described saffron as a substitute for opium or as “opium for children.”
A dose of five grams of saffron has a narcotic effect and twelve grams can already cause death. Therefore, it is a real drug. These pharmacological effects have landed this unassuming crocus thread a place in gourmet dining: saffron is fun! Thus it explains our willingness to spend a lot of money for this product.
Saffron – the spice for gourmets
Saffron enjoys great popularity with gourmets: its intense yet light taste takes many dishes to the next level. In addition, the saffron dyes the dishes a beautiful yellow color – and simply by spreading cheerfulness it stimulates appetite.
In Persian and Afghan cuisine saffron is used in many rice dishes and desserts.
Its delicate flavor and the bright yellow color lend the cake something very special! And from the Spanish cuisine you would certainly know this spice, especially in the paella.
However, saffron is a very intense and strong spice – therefore you can always expect be asked to use only minute amounts of it in the recipes, otherwise the dishes will quickly become bitter! In principle, it should not be cooked long – its flavors are from the most part “volatile”, so it is best only to add a little to an almost finished dish. It is also used for fish soups, risottos and for all kinds of pastries and even to refine liqueurs.
One should pay attention to the following rules when cooking:
Do you want your dish to have a particularly yellow color and is the aroma rather unimportant to you? Then you should maybe start cooking with ground saffron first.
Do you want to enjoy the special saffron flavor in a dish? Then you should add the threads to the cooking process a little later, as previously described.
But enough of the theory. In the next post, there is a brilliant recipe for you to try!