Red gold, the queen of spices... there is no shortage of superlatives to describe saffron. Humans have been using it for thousands of years. Saffron is extracted from the stigmas of a dainty purple flower, Crocus sativus L., but its origins remain uncertain. Historians have long asserted that it is native to Central Asia but, according to botanical research, it is probably more likely to have first grown in Crete.1 Mythology also presents two versions of the origin of saffron. Crocus, a young man in the prime of his life, is said to have been accidentally killed when his friend Hermes threw a discus. This god immediately transformed young Crocus’ drops of blood into a purple flower bearing his name. In another version, Crocus was in love with a beautiful nymph called Smilax. She reciprocated his feelings at first, but soon tired of him so, since the young suitor continued to pursue her, she turned him into a flower. Do the intense red stigmas symbolise the blood of Crocus or his inflamed passion for Smilax? Nobody knows.
A labour-intensive harvest...
Whatever its origins, saffron remains a mysterious and fascinating spice. The saffron crocus blooms in autumn, just when other plants are preparing to face winter. Its flowers grow very quickly, suddenly transforming crocus fields into vast mauve carpets in sharp contrast with everything else around them. It is such an amazing sight that, according to popular legend, when the flowers covered Alexander the Great’s camp overnight, he was so taken aback and his troops so petrified that they were no longer willing to fight and he was obliged to beat a retreat.2 For saffron producers, it is an entirely different story. As soon as the saffron buds appear, it is impossible for them to leave. When day breaks, they roll up their sleeves and gather their baskets and their strength to begin their back-breaking work. The whole family and all the neighbours help with the harvest, while larger farms bring in specialised workers. Saffron production remains entirely manual and requires a large workforce concentrated over two to three weeks in autumn, when the crocuses are in full bloom. After harvesting the flowers, the three red stigmas are gently removed from the corolla of purple petals. Next comes the all-important drying stage, to remove most of the spice’s humidity so that it will keep longer. In Iran, Spain and Morocco, the stigmas are spread out on the rooftops and left to dry in the sun, while in France or Greece, mechanical dryers tend to be used.
... and commonplace corruption
It takes 150 flowers to obtain just one gram of saffron.3 Yields are therefore very low. Today, as throughout history, the rarity and expense of the spice make it prone to forgery. According to Christine Ferrari, a saffron grower in Morocco, “90% of the international market is corrupted by fraud.”4 The powder is often moderated with other plants such as safflower (also called ‘dyer’s saffron’) or turmeric (‘false saffron’). While such plants have similar dyeing properties, they do not have the same distinctive aroma as saffron. The stigmas are often considered as a guarantee of the quality of saffron, and therefore do not escape the fraudsters either. Christine Ferrari says, “I’ve found hair, chicken feathers, grated wood, coloured plastic and even strands of dried meat in some jars of saffron stigmas.”
A thousand and one uses
Let’s go back to authentic saffron, which has been cultivated since Antiquity and was traded for a wide range of applications in Egypt, Greece and Rome. Saffron was used as a dye for clothes and to colour the strips of cloth used to wrap mummies. It was burnt during religious ceremonies to purify sanctuaries. Cleopatra claimed the spice had aphrodisiac properties and would add it to her bath of donkey’s milk when getting ready for a romantic encounter. According to Pliny the Elder, saffron helped prevent inebriation. He believed that wearing a wreath of saffron flowers offered protection against the harmful effects of wine!
Saffron was omnipresent in the Middle Ages and highly prized among those who could afford it. It was used to season the dishes of the well-to-do and, when preparing a banquet, chefs basted roast joints with saffron to give them a golden sheen.5 It was therefore a spice which people flaunted in public, to demonstrate their wealth.6
Saffron contains vivid pigments, hence it was mixed with milk or egg and used as paint or ink. Its extract was used to sanitise the air in theatres or to perfume hair. In medicine, saffron became a sort of panacea to cure all ills, from the plague to sore gums, tumours and wild animal bites.7
Cooking with saffron
Over the centuries, many uses of saffron have fallen by the wayside; its tinctorial properties made saffron particularly useful for dyeing textiles, but it has since been replaced by cheaper dyes.8 However, the spice is still highly prized in the culinary world and, as we will see further on, it continues to be used for medicinal purposes.
The distinctive, slightly bitter aroma of saffron, with notes of hay and honey, and its interesting colouring powers have made it a popular spice in kitchens across the world. Paella is, without doubt, one of the most well-known dishes which uses saffron, but this ‘red gold’ is an ingredient of many other traditional recipes around the world.
Saffron is highly appreciated in Indian cuisine. It is added to both savoury and sweet dishes and even used to flavour drinks, such as saffron lassi. The most famous dishes include biryani, made from rice, saffron and other ingredients (vegetables, meat, etc.), kesari bhath – a very popular dessert made from semolina, sugar and saffron – as well as kheer, one of the oldest Indian desserts, prepared with rice, milk, saffron and dried fruit.
As well as the famous risotto alla milanese, there is a plethora of Italian dishes containing saffron. The Abruzzo region is famous for its scapece alla vastese, a fish dish whose origins date back to the Roman Empire. Pieces of dogfish are fried, then marinated for 24 hours in a blend of vinegar and saffron before being served as a starter. The precious spice also adds a fragrant touch to simple, hearty dishes such as cannarrozzetti allo zafferano – hollow pasta seasoned with ewe’s milk ricotta, pork cheek, pepper and saffron – or farro alle mandorle e zafferano, a sort of spelt stew with almonds.
In France, saffron is a classic ingredient of the highly flavoured bouillabaisse fish soup, a speciality of Marseille. In Morocco, saffron is used in chicken tagines, pastillas and pastries. It is also a vital ingredient of Iranian cuisine.
A festive spice
The bright colour the spice imparts is perfect for celebrations as its golden yellow is reminiscent of sunshine and spreads cheer. A pinch of saffron is all it takes to illuminate dishes and work its magic, as if the sun’s rays had danced in the pots and pans, infusing the food with the nurturing energy of the celestial star. It’s pretty, it’s appetising, it’s uplifting. Indeed, saffron might just well be the most cordial of all plants.9 Even if yellow is often associated with both desire and jealousy, despite the ambivalent connotation of the colour of saffron, it symbolises the sun, its light and its warmth, material wealth, joy and happiness. It is therefore hardly surprising that it is part of so many festive dishes.
In Sardinia, everyone loves su succu, a dish reserved for special occasions, such as weddings, Christmas, etc. It is made from artisanal noodles soaked in broth, seasoned with saffron and sour fresh cheese. For the Bénichon festival in the French-speaking region of Switzerland, bakers prepare cuchaule, a golden brioche seasoned with the characteristic fragrance of saffron. Many saffron-growing regions hold festivals in honour of the spice. In Taliouine (Morocco), for example, no fewer than three days are devoted to celebrating this precious and much coveted spice.
Saffron as a remedy?
Saffron is mentioned in the earliest medical texts. Some 5000 years ago, the legendary Chinese Emperor Chen Nong referred to saffron when describing the properties of several plants used in Chinese medicine. In Ayurveda – a traditional Indian system of medicine – saffron is prescribed for several ailments. It is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, be useful for purifying blood and particularly beneficial for women, to help regulate the menstrual cycle and the hormonal system in general. It is also an antispasmodic, a harmoniser (it balances the three doshas, vata, pitta and kapha) and is good for the skin. Hence saffron is used in several ayurvedic oils, such as Kumkumadi Taila, an ancient formulation used for facial massages. Saffron mixed with milk, almonds and honey gives an aphrodisiac, recommended to boost sexual energy and compensate for a low sperm count.10 In European phytotherapy, while saffron is no longer seen as a panacea, it is deemed an interesting remedy for disorders of the nervous system, and a painkiller. Due to the multiple uses of saffron in traditional practices, modern medicine is now studying the possible therapeutic effects of its different compounds.11 Researchers are focusing their efforts in particular on the anti-tumoral properties of crocin and crocetin, carotenoids found in crocuses and gardenia.
Faced with growing worldwide demand and the difficulties inherent to the cultivation of the plant, institutes such as the CSK Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University in Palampur (India) are bringing saffron into the laboratory. They have managed to obtain saffron stigmas in vitro presenting characteristics similar to natural stigmas and even to produce the isolated compounds of saffron via cell culture.12 Research is therefore well on its way to being able to clarify or modify traditional practices.