Samui Wining & Dining
A Spice to Die For

The colourful story of saffron.

4-1From a seasoning and a colour enhancing food additive, to a modern day Spanish paella, to part of Cleopatra’s beauty routine, saffron has been cultivated and used in a variety of ways for over 3,500 years. Some of them may come as a surprise. It’s always been a highly valued and prized spice. The name alone may conjure up images of exotic spice markets, dark alleys filled with heady, sweet aromas and sensual culinary delights but, you’ll be asking, what exactly is saffron? Is it as exotic and enticing as our imaginations would have us believe?

So what of this spice’s history? It’s thought that saffron was first cultivated as long ago as the Bronze Age, though wild saffron had long been used for medicinal purposes, and it’s even been found as an ingredient in paints from 50,000 year old cave paintings. On the island of Crete, frescos have been unearthed which depict the gathering of saffron by women and others of women applying saffron to wounds.

Down through the ages, and across cultures, it seems saffron was grown and used by ancient peoples who valued both its medicinal as well as its seasoning qualities. Some today who are interested in traditional medicine also offer up evidence of its medicinal uses, citing its powers as an anti-depressant and anti-oxidant. As long ago as the Persian Empire, the spice was believed to have these medicinal qualities and was used to treat gastrointestinal problems as well as what was described as melancholia and what we’d probably nowadays term depression.

In Ancient Egypt Cleopatra added a quarter cup of saffron to her warm baths, appreciating the cosmetic and, what she believed to be, the aphrodisiac qualities of the spice. During his Asian Campaign, Alexander the Great would also bathe in saffron infused water after battle to heal his wounds. He was so convinced of its beneficial effects he advised all his men to do likewise, and they took this practice of saffron-bathing back with them to Greece. Indeed Greek legends and myths grew around the search for saffron in faraway countries and the adventures that ensued during these campaigns. In Europe with the Black Death of 1347-1350 demand rose sharply amongst those affected by the disease who believed that saffron could cure them or their loved ones.

The sweet honey toned and hay-like aroma of saffron has long been appreciated and used in perfumes. The Ancient Greeks and Romans highly prized saffron for its perfume. Roman amphitheatres would be deodorized with saffron, and in ancient Greece the nobility would wear pouches of the spice around their necks as a kind of mask against the less than desirable odour of their fellow theatre goers. In Greece, as in Persia, it was also appreciated for its calming effects and was used as a cure for sleeplessness. It was a kind of forerunner of today’s aromatherapy.

In the Middle Ages, Spain, France and other European countries fell in love with the spice to use in their cooking, and many recipes were written especially to incorporate this exotic spice. In fact it became so popular and prized, that the adulteration of saffron was punishable by imprisonment and even execution! It was such a highly valuable commodity that the pirate ships that terrorized the Mediterranean during this time would ignore ships transporting gold and seize the saffron loads instead.

Today the value of saffron is still remarkable: In February 2013, a retail bottle containing 0.06 ounces could be purchased for $16.26 or the equivalent of $4,336 per pound.

The spice is derived from the dried stigmas of the domesticated saffron crocus - crocus sativus. In each purple crocus flower there are three bright crimson coloured stigmas, which when picked and dried, are the saffron. This wonderful spice is cultivated worldwide, in particular in Iran, Spain, Italy, France, and Greece. Saffron flourishes best in a cool dry climate with well-drained fertile soil and sufficient rainfall or a good irrigation system. It is a labour-intensive process to grow and produce saffron as all the steps in the process, sowing, harvesting, separating the stigma from the flowers need to be done by hand.

The flowers need to be picked as soon as they start to bloom, then the stigma are dried either in the sun or in ovens. Just to give you some idea of the labour involved in the production of saffron, it takes 72,000 flowers to make just one pound of saffron. When dried the weight of the saffron is reduced by four fifths. So for one kilo of raw stigmas you’ll get 200g of saffron.

If you’d like to try one of the recipes out there that require saffron, soak the threads for a few minutes in hot but not boiling water before cooking. This will release all that great flavour, colour and healthy nutrients.

Dishes that use saffron only need a pinch of the spice. The old cliché holds good here: a little goes a long way.

When buying saffron it’s best to go for the more expensive saffron threads instead of powdered saffron which is more prone to adulteration thanks to the adding of turmeric or other less expensive spices – however these days there’s no threat of execution for selling inferior quality saffron!

Through its long history people have treasured this spice. The Greeks wrote legends about it. The Persians offered it up to their deities. In the Middle Ages people killed over it!

Through its long history people have treasured this spice. The Greeks wrote legends about it. The Persians offered it up to their deities. In the Middle Ages people killed over it!


Natalie Hughes


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