history of saffron

Exotic, captivating, intriguing, compelling, expensive, seductive.

Strange choices of words for a plant, but words that have been used though-out the centuries to describe this insignificant little bloom.
Saffron is an exotic spice; its flavour and aroma are a sensory experience unlike any other.  For thousands of years Saffron has been linked to beauty, elegance and good taste. Saffron is unique among spices. It has an aroma and flavour that cannot be duplicated, either naturally or artificially.  A common mistake is to replace it with turmeric because of the colour, but this will profoundly change the flavour of a dish.

There is no absolutely conclusive information in regard to the first planting or use of saffron but it is accepted that saffron is one of the world's most ancient spices with records of harvest and use as early as 500BC.

Its uses were varied:

  • As a cosmetic and perfume for the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians.
  • For medicinal use - mentioned by Hippocrates it has been credited as being helpful in the treatment of depression, loss of sexual function, kidney and liver complaints, and the healing of skin tissue.
  • As a dye for fabric and the skin.
  • As a status symbol for the wealthy.  At Roman feasts it was infused to create a welcoming aroma, petals were scattered amongst guests, who often bathed in saffron water before dining on saffron dishes.
  • Saffron is often used in very special dishes linked to a festival or religious celebration.

The world's largest producer of Saffron is Iran who accounts for over 85% of the total world production. Other large producers of Saffron include Spain, India, Greece & Australia.

Saffron is the dried red stigma of the crocus sativus saffron flower.  The flowers appear in April, and are picked by hand in the morning - ideally before the flowers open up.  They must be picked and plucked (processed) the day they bloom.  The red stigmas are removed form the mauve petals and are laid on a dehydrating tray to dry.  A back breaking and labour intensive task!!

It's very time consuming and understandably this contributes to the cost of this exotic spice.  It can take up to 150,000 glowers to produce a kilo of the spice.  Fortunately a little goes along way.
Once you have used saffron you will understand - its flavour is unlike any other.  Used sparingly and correctly (i.e. as an infusion) all it's wonderful qualities will be released and fill your cooking with a fragrance as rich and deep as the red of the spice itself.

Saffron has a trinity of actions:  

  1. as an aromatic,
  2. a flavouring agent and
  3. as a colorant which to us distinguishes saffron from all other culinary ingredients.

Saffron even has nutritive value, being one of the richest sources of Riboflavin, Vitamin B2.

The taste of saffron is pleasantly spicy, earthy, slightly bitter-sweet, with honey overtones, and is detected at the back of the palate.  Saffron enhances the flavour of whatever it is being partnered with in the dish.  The saffron flavour is detected at the back of the palate and should only come out as a finishing flavour, not the overriding component.

This pretty spice is common to fish and rice dishes in several cuisines. It is essential to a French bouillabaisse, the shellfish and fish stew. Spanish cooks consider it a must for paella, an exquisite dish of rice and seafood, as well as for arroz con pollo, chicken with rice. Risotto Milanese is the Italian offering for saffron rice. You might also try it as a seasoning for soups, potatoes or tomato dishes.

We love using saffron, and of course are lucky enough to keep a good supply of it in our pantry.  Of course, that's only a few grams. The king of the gods Zeus apparently lies down on a whole bed of the stuff. Oh well - we can but dream.

For more information about saffron try these links below:
New Zealand Crop and Food Research
Gernot Katzers Spice Dictionary