Saffron - the only spice, the price of which has not decreased since the Middle Ages, when a pound of saffron could be exchanged for an Arabian horse. The name of this spice in almost all languages comes from the Arabic word “za’faran”, meaning “yellow”, which indicates that saffron was valued primarily as a dye. Although saffron in the modern world has lost its former significance and is used only in cooking, it is valued on a par with gold. Only 300 tons of saffron are produced annually in the world.
Saffron is known to mankind as a spice for more than 4000 years, although paints based on saffron were used in the Neolithic rock art. The first traces of its use in food were found in Mesopotamia, and the first written references refer to the Sumerian civilization. Persians in the 10th c. BC. they wove saffron threads into sacrifice fabrics and made perfumes and aromatic oils based on saffron, used as strong aphrodisiacs. In the army of Alexander the Great, saffron was used to heal wounds. In the Old Testament, saffron is mentioned as an element of sacrifice, dye and incense.
In ancient Chinese sources, saffron is referred to as medicine. In the east, the colour of saffron became the colour of clothing of Buddhist monks, and in Europe - a sign of wealth and high position in society. Roman used saffron as a medicine, a dye for fabric and leather and as an aromatic seasoning.
Interest in saffron, as well as in other spices and luxury goods, declined with the fall of the Roman Empire and reappeared only in the Middle Ages during the plague epidemic. The piracy of a ship with a valuable cargo even led to a small “saffron war”. In the courts of European monarchs, saffron-coloured clothing and shoes were very popular. Saffron flowers were used in Bourbon heraldry.
In the English county of Essex, there is the town of Safron, named after the saffron fields, which brought considerable income to the treasury.
Henry VIII valued saffron so much that he forbade his court to tint hair and clothing with saffron in order to look favourably against their background.
The first to grow crocus and produce saffron for export guessed the Spanish. Until now, the largest saffron plantations are located in Andalusia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. At present, saffron is produced in Greece, Iran, France, Italy, Turkey, Pakistan, New Zealand, USA, China, Japan, Ukraine and the Transcaucasian states.
The inhabitants of these regions, which use saffron widely in cooking, do not suffer from cardiovascular diseases, despite the fact that their traditional cuisine may be rich in fats. Spanish saffron is sold at the highest price, as it has a rich aroma and rich taste. Italian saffron has a very strong smell and strong taste; Saffron of Greek, Iranian and Indian origin is stored longer than others.
The high price of saffron is due to two reasons. Firstly, its production is very laborious, and secondly, the aroma, taste and healing properties of saffron have no equal among spices. Saffron is the dried stigmas of the pistils of the purple crocus (Crocus sativus), which blooms massively only 10-15 days a year, and the duration of the flowering of each flower is only 2-3 days. Only manual labour is used to collect flowers and process crocus pestles. Stigmas should be cut on the first day of a flower opening. The quality of saffron depends on the speed of collection and drying.
To get a kilo of saffron, you need at dawn, collect about 150,000 flowers. A one-acre field yields a crop of 4-5 kg of saffron, depending on the weather and the professionalism of the pickers.
The wild crocus (Crocus cartwrightianus) is not used for the production of saffron, it is replaced by the sterile form (Crocus sativus), derived from Crete. The “cultivated” crocus has longer pistils and cannot be propagated by seeds. New plants are formed from bulbs, which are divided into several parts and planted in a new place. Crocuses live only 3-4 years, after which the plantation needs to be updated. Growing crocuses is just as laborious as picking wildflowers, but thanks to breeders, a wild crocus is not threatened with extinction. It can be found in warm and bright places, protected from the wind.
Since ancient times, it is known that saffron has unique properties. It is able to relieve from pain, depression and melancholia, as it contributes to the production of serotonin - the hormone of joy. Thus, saffron is a light, addictive psychotropic substance. Ayurveda attributes to saffron the ability to improve digestion, strengthen the senses and respiratory organs, clean the lymph, kidneys and liver, relieve cramps, remove blood stasis in blood vessels, improve complexion and increase potency. In ancient times, noble women drank saffron tincture before childbirth to relieve pain. Cleopatra took saffron baths to keep her skin young.
In modern medicine, saffron is used to prepare eye drops and various medicinal and restorative tinctures. It has been proven that saffron has anticarcinogenic and antimutagenic properties. Hot milk saffron promotes the growth of brain tissue and improves memory. Saffron with honey helps break up kidney stones. Crocus rye tincture contains carotene, thiamine, flavonoids, calcium, phosphorus and vitamins. Over 4000 years of using saffron, its efficacy with 90 diseases was found.
Inhalation of the aroma of saffron has a beneficial effect on the respiratory organs and helps to fall asleep. Saffron lotions relieve a severe headache and help with ear inflammation. In addition, saffron reduces hunger. An excessive dose of saffron can lead to strong arousal and tension of the senses. Excess saffron can not only spoil the dish, but also lead to poisoning. A few grams of fresh, high-quality saffron is a lethal dose! Such a highly tonic remedy like saffron is contraindicated in pregnant women.
Saffron is a dark red or red-brown soft twisted yarn with yellow patches. Even one thread is enough to give the dish a specific delicate aroma and an exquisite sweet-sharp-bitter taste. Gourmets describe the aroma of saffron as metallic honey with hints of fresh hay. When buying saffron, try to choose whole threads, not powder. Even Pliny 2000 years ago warned that ground saffron can be a fake. Fake saffron in the Middle Ages was punished by burning alive. Real saffron cannot be cheap.
Usually, under the guise of cheap saffron, they sell turmeric, calendula flower powder, “Mexican saffron” or saffron, which has the same yellow pistils but does not possess the remarkable properties of real saffron. Crocus autumn is very similar to crocus, which is very poisonous. The stigmas of real saffron from unscrupulous vendors may be coated with glycerin for weight gain. Saffron is not stored for a long time, it makes no sense to buy it for future use. In cooking, saffron is used to impart a subtle flavour, spicy taste and beautiful golden colour to soups, meat, fish, vegetable dishes and desserts. Saffron can be added to tea, coffee and soft drinks to make it tonic. Saffron is usually applied as a water solution before the dish is ready. For 1 litre of the finished dish, you need no more than 5-6 drops of saffron tincture.
Real saffron, dropped with olive oil to increase its weight, in order to get twice the price, can be sold to trusting consumers. Real saffron can be stored in glass containers for decades. Whereas the olive oil in the “modernized” spice is bitter after two years, or even earlier, and its taste becomes disgusting. To distinguish the real "king of spices" from the soaked with olive oil, you should put it on a piece of paper and crush it. If there is an additive in the product, the oil spot will remain on the paper.