Saffron has a complex history with still quite a few grey areas. It is generally accepted by historians that saffron originates from West Asia, from Mesopotamia or perhaps Iran. It is recorded as having been found on the banks of the Euphrates in 2300 BCE. Yet the latest scientific research questions this origin. The saffron usually used in cooking is extracted from the domesticated crocus, Crocus sativus, the origin of which has not been clearly identified. This crocus could be the result of the intensive selection of an indigenous crocus, which originated in the eastern Mediterranean, possibly the one depicted in the Santorini murals dating from 1600-1500 BCE. Yet other species may well be its predecessors.
Be that as it may, saffron was particularly valued throughout Antiquity. It was extensively traded, firstly in Egypt, then in Greece and Rome, and was used as a seasoning when cooking. It gained a reputation of being an aphrodisiac, and was thought to have medicinal and health benefits. It was used to dye clothes and was also valued as a fragrance; the Romans used to spread it on the floor of their thermal baths, for example.
With the upheaval of the end of the Roman Empire, this spice disappeared from Europe. It returned with the Arabs via Spain, where it was cultivated in the 10th century. In the 14th century, Europeans were in the grip of a genuine spice frenzy. Trade in saffron was rekindled with the Orient, and in turn several European countries set about cultivating this plant, as it was a particularly lucrative market. At the time, Europeans thought saffron had health benefits and made generous use of it in their cuisine, often blended with other spices. So beef, which was considered as ‘cold’ in medical understanding at that time, had to be accompanied by a ‘hot’ sauce, made from saffron for example.
From the 17th century onward, the craze for this spice died down, yet did not entirely disappear. There is currently renewed interest in the cultivation of saffron; Mund, in the Swiss canton of Valais, has revived it in the past few decades.
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