History of Saffron – the world’s most expensive spice
Saffron is derived from the dried stigmas of the purple flower botanical name of which is Crocus Sativus. This tiny stunningly beautiful flower is one of the first bulb flowers of the season.
Why saffron is so expensive?
Being the world’s most costly spices by weight, saffron is derived from the flower of Crocus. Saffron crocus grows to 20–30cm and bears up to four flowers, each with three vivid crimson stigmas. The styles and stigmas, called threads, are collected and dried to be used in food preparations.
To glean 1 kilogram of dry saffron requires the harvest of 110,000–170,000 flowers. 40 hours of labour are needed to pick 150,000 flowers. Moreover, the flowers have to be individually hand-picked when they fully open. Stigmas are dried quickly upon extraction and have to be sealed in airtight containers. Saffron prices at wholesale and retail rates range from $1,100 to $11,000 per kilogram. In February 2013, a retail bottle containing 1.7 grams could be purchased for $16.26 or the equivalent of $4,336 per pound. A pound contains between 70,000 and 200,000 threads. Vivid crimson colouring, slight moistness, elasticity, and lack of broken-off thread debris are all traits of fresh saffron.
Saffron Content and Use
Saffron’s taste and fragrance result from the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. Picrocrocin is a precursor of safranal. Safranal is the constituent primarily responsible for the aroma of saffron. It also contains a carotenoid pigment, crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles.
Saffron contributes a luminous yellow-orange colouring to foods. Saffron is widely used in Persian, Indian, European, Arab, and Turkish cuisines. It is used for religious purposes in India, and is widely used in cooking in many cuisines, ranging from the Milanese risotto of Italy, the paella of Spain, the bouillabaisse of France, to the biryani with various meat accompaniments in South Asia. One of the most esteemed use for saffron is in the preparation of the Golden Ham, a precious dry-cured ham made with saffron from San Gimignano.
Safranal is an effective anticonvulsant. It also exhibits high antioxidant and free radical scavenging activity, along with cytotoxicity towards cancer cells. It has also been shown to have antidepressant properties. There is some evidence to suggest that saffron helps with major depressive disorder, simply called depression – a mental disorder characterized by a pervasive and persistent low mood that is accompanied by low self-esteem and by a loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities.
Since ancient times, saffron has also been used as a fabric dye, particularly in China and India, and in perfumery.
History of saffron
Saffron recorded history is attested in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical treatise compiled under Ashurbanipal. Saffron has been traded and used for over 4,000 years in the treatment of some 90 illnesses, dyes, perfumes, and body washes. Can you imagine that saffron-based pigments have indeed been found in 50,000-year-old depictions of prehistoric places in northwest Iran?!
In Ancient Greece saffron was used as a remedy for sleeplessness and to reduce hangovers caused by wine. It was also used to perfume bathing water and as an aphrodisiac. Ancient perfumers in Egypt, physicians in Gaza, townspeople in Rhodes, and the Greek hetaerae courtesans used saffron in their scented waters, perfumes and potpourris, mascaras and ointments, divine offerings, and medical treatments. Cleopatra used saffron in her baths so that lovemaking would be more pleasurable. During his Asian campaigns, Alexander the Great used Persian saffron in his infusions, rice, and baths as a curative for battle wounds.
Saffron gatherer, fresco, Akrotiri, Greece, 1600-1500 BC
“With Violets Wreathed and Robe of Saffron Hue” by John William Godward, 1902
Hope Springs Eternal by Josephine Wall (http://www.josephinewall.co.uk)
Kashmiri and Chinese accounts date its arrival to South Asia anywhere between 2500–900 years ago, when saffron was used as a dye and a treatment for melancholy.
An English legend from 14th century says that Edward III brought a bulb of saffron hidden in a hole in his stick from the Middle East to the town of Walden where the bulb was grown and reproduced giving prosperity to the town.
During the Renaissance, Venice was the most important commercial center for saffron. In that period saffron was worth its weight in gold. But sadly its high price led to its adulteration, which was severely punished. Henry VIII, who cherished the aroma of saffron, condemned to death the adulterers of saffron.
Europeans introduced saffron to the Americas when immigrant members of the Schwenkfelder Church left Europe with a trunk containing its corms. By 1730, the Pennsylvania Dutch cultivated saffron throughout eastern Pennsylvania.
Global production on a by-mass basis is now dominated by Iran – it accounts for approximately 90% of the world production of saffron.
“The Death of Hyacinthos” by Jean Broc
In Greek mythology, Crocus was a mortal youth of fine and noble spirit. One day he saw the beautiful nymph Smilax in the woods near Athens and fell deeply in love with her. Crocus set out in pursuit of Smilax and initially Smilax was flattered by his amorous advances, but soon got bored by his attentions. Because he was unhappy with his love affair, he was turned by the gods into a plant bearing his name, the crocus. Its radiant orange stigmas remain as a faint symbol of his undying passion for Smilax. The tragedy and the spice (saffron) would be recalled later by Ovid. Smilax is believed to have been given a similar fate and transformed into bindweed.
In another variation of the myth, Crocus was said to be a companion of Hermes and was accidentally killed by the god in a game of discus. Crocus’ blood drops were transformed into a radiant flower. The myth is similar to that of Apollon and Hyacinthus, and may indeed be a variation thereof.
Interesting fact - saffron Bahubali statue
Bahubali is a much revered figure among Jains. Jainism is an ancient religion from India that teaches that the way to liberation and bliss is to live a life of harmlessness and renunciation. The aim of Jain life is to achieve liberation of the soul. The colossal monolithic statue of Bahubali at Shravanabelagola (158km away from Bangalore, India) is carved out of a single block of granite and stands majestically on top of a hill. It is 17m high and is visible from a distance of 30km. It was built in around 983 A.D. and is one of the largest free standing statues in the world. For centuries, Shravanabelagola has remained a great pilgrimage center and thousands of pilgrims flock to see the magnificent, gigantic statue. During Jain Festival the Bahubali Statue becomes golden due to pouring saffron water over it.