Samui Wining & Dining
Oriental Gold

The most prized of all the spices - Saffron

 

20Said to be, “Possibly the first spice ever used by man,” saffron has been used since the dawn of culinary creations. Its name is believed to have evolved from the Middle Eastern words sahafarn (thread) and za’faran (yellow). Thread-like saffron filaments are the dried stigmas that come from the flowering crocus plant.

    Saffron cultivation and usage reaches back more than 3,000 years and spans many cultures, continents and civilisations. It’s likely to have been found growing wild long before that, however. Saffron-based pigments have been found in the prehistoric paints used in 50,000 year old cave art in Iraq. And, since its cultivation, it’s remained amongst the world’s most-prized and costliest substances. Native to south-west Asia, it’s believed to have first been grown around the Mediterranean countries. Ancient frescoes in Greece depict young girls harvesting the flowers. They also show the spice being used for medicinal purposes, as a perfume and in textiles as well as a seasoning.

Various conflicting stories exist that describe saffron’s first arrival in Asia. Historical accounts gleaned from Persian records suggest that the spice was first spread in the 6th century BC to Kashmir and India by Persian conquerors. Phoenicians then began to market the new Kashmiri saffron utilizing their extensive trade routes. On the other hand, traditional Kashmiri legends state that saffron first arrived sometime during the 11th and 12th centuries AD, when two foreign Sufi holy men wandered into the region. Having fallen sick, they beseeched the local chieftain for a cure. When he obliged, the two travellers reputedly gave him a saffron crocus bulb as payment and thanks. To this day, prayers are offered to the two holy men during the saffron harvesting season in late autumn.

      Ancient Chinese Buddhist accounts present yet another version of how the spice arrived in India. According to legend, an Indian Buddhist missionary was sent to Kashmir in the 5th century BC. When he got there, he reportedly sowed the first saffron crop. From there, saffron use spread and, as well as applications in food, saffron stigmas were also soaked in water to yield a golden-yellow solution that was used as a fabric dye. Such was the love of the resulting fabric that, immediately after the death of Buddha, his attending monks decreed saffron as the official colour for Buddhist robes and mantles. Something that is still applicable to this day.

       In modern times saffron cultivation has spread to Afghanistan due to the efforts of the United Nations (UN). It promotes saffron cultivation amongst impoverished Afghan farmers as an ideal alternative to illicit and lucrative opium production. They stress Afghanistan’s sunny and semi-arid climate is perfect for saffron crocus growth. In Thailand’s Golden Triangle region to the very north it’s also widely cultivated. And regions of France, Italy, Sweden, Iraq, India and many other places worldwide have also been growing the crocus for centuries. The La Mancha region of Spain is particularly renowned for it. Brought over by the Moors in the 8th century AD, La Mancha has some of the best quality saffron in the world. It takes 5,200 hand picked flowers to yield a single ounce of saffron. Hence the high price of saffron from this area.

      In culinary creations, saffron appears in Moorish, Mediterranean and Asian cuisines. Its most common function is to colour rice yellow, as in festive Indian pilaus and risotto Milanese. It combines well with fish and seafood, as in Spanish paella as well as bouillabaisse. In England, saffron is probably best known for its use in Cornish saffron buns where it’s paired with dried fruit in a yeast cake. There’s also the medieval market town of Saffron Walden in Essex. It’s a small country town with early origins, the name Walden meaning ‘Valley of Britons’. Reference to saffron denotes the importance of the valuable crocus crop between the 15th and 18th centuries, where it was grown for its uses as a medicine, dye and flavouring. Medicinally, it’s been recognised as an antispasmodic, diaphoretic, carminative, emmenagogic and sedative, although large doses can be fatal.

      Saffron has a hay-like fragrance and skilled chefs know exactly how to make the most of it. When you come across a dish with saffron in the mix, remember its origins, enjoy the flavour and relish the care that’s been taken to bring it to your table.



Johnny Paterson


 


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