Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the “saffron crocus.”
The domesticated saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is an autumn-flowering perennial plant unknown in the wild. It probably descends from the eastern Mediterranean autumn-flowering Crocus cartwrightianus, which is also known as “wild saffron” and originated in Crete or mainland Greece. An origin in Southwest Asia, although often suspected, has been disapproved by botanical research.
Its recorded history is attested in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical treatise compiled under Ashurbanipa.
The ancient Greeks and Romans used saffron as perfume, and saffron is mentioned in the Chinese materia medica from the 1550s.
Europeans introduced saffron to the Americas when immigrant members of the Schwenkfelder Church left Europe with a trunk containing its corms.
The cultivated saffron flowers in the autumn and comes up every year, so it is known as a perennial plant.
Upon flowering, the plants are 20–30 cm (8–12 in) in height and bear up to four flowers.
A three-pronged style 25–30 mm (1.0–1.2 in) in length, emerges from each flower. Each prong terminates with a vivid crimson stigma, which are the distal end of a carpel.
What we use for that distinctive yellow color, sweet-herb smell, and bitter taste is actually the stigma (the part of the pistil where pollen germinates).
Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, is costly because more than 225,000 stigmas must be hand picked to produce kilogram 0.45 (1 pound).
Its costliness has to do with its harvesting. Only a small amount of each saffron flower is used, and all harvesting must be done by hand.
Global production on a by-mass basis is dominated by Iran, which accounts for some 90% of the annual harvest.
Dried saffron is composed of 65% carbohydrates, 6% fat, 11% protein (table) and 12% water.
Saffron contains several plant-derived chemical compounds that are known to have been antioxidant, disease preventing, and health promoting properties.
This novel spice is an excellent source of minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure.
As a spice, saffron is known for what it does to energize dishes with a pungent, earthy essence.
It is used to color and flavour many Mediterranean and Oriental dishes, particularly rice and fish, and English, Scandinavian, and Balkan breads.
The first known image of saffron in pre-Greek culture is much older and stems from the Bronze Age. A saffron harvest is shown in the Knossos palace frescoes of Minoan Crete, which depict the flowers being picked by young girls and monkeys.
Naturally, one of saffron’s first uses may have been for dyeing textiles, since a single grain can color 40 litters (about 10 gallons) of water with a distinctive yellow hue. More than a grain is used, however, to color the bright orange robes worn by Buddhist priests in India. Three wispy saffron “threads” can be gleaned from each delicate crocus, which, ironically, is lavender-purple in color.
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.
Ancient Greek legends tell of brazen sailors embarking on long and perilous voyages to the remote land of Cilicia, where they traveled to procure what they believed was the world’s most valuable saffron.
In the writings of Galen and Hippocrates, saffron was mentioned as a medical treatment for coughs, colds, stomach ailments, insomnia, uterine bleeding, scarlet fever, heart trouble, and flatulence.
In France, saffron cultivation probably started during the 13th century.
A degree of uncertainty surrounds the origin of the English word “saffron”. It might stem from the 12th-century Old French term safran, which comes from the Latin word safranum or from Arabic, az-za’faran, having unknown origin.
When buying the spice, make sure you’re getting a genuine product. Many fake or adulterated saffron products are on the market. To tell if your saffron is the real deal, immerse a tiny piece in warm water or milk. If the liquid colors immediately, you have a fake on your hands. Authentic saffron takes about 10 to 15 minutes of soaking before it changes the color of the water.