With a history that spans over 3,500 years, saffron is one of the oldest and most prized spices in the world, and has been considered a valuable commodity for thousands of years. The exact origins of saffron, although somewhat traceable, remain mysterious. However, the crocus sativus seems to root in Central Asia, precisely in the Afghan-Iranian area, and is mainly cultivated today in the Iberian Peninsula, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
A Historical Spice
Many historical books mention the usage of saffron, whether it is as a spice for cooking, as a pharmaceutical for health reasons or as a plant-based pigment for dyeing. One of the earliest mentions of this superfood is without doubt the Bible, in the Song of Songs, where it is referred to as ‘one of the most prominent aromatic spices’. The famous Greek doctor and botanist Dioscorides (70 AD) praised its digestive properties and, almost a century later, saffron was introduced in China from Iran by the Mongol invaders and mentioned as a powerful pharmaceutical in the Chinese Material Medical of Pun Tsaou (1552-78).
This precious spice had been traded throughout Eurasia during all of those years and desired by kings, princes, Roman emperors, and pharaohs alike for its powerful aphrodisiac and medicinal properties. Rumour has it that Cleopatra herself would bathe in a saffron infused milk concoction before meeting with her many suitors.
The Big Saffron Family
The scientific name for the family to which this plant belongs (Crocus) is etymologically derived from the Hebrew term kurkom (kurkum in Arabic). The scientific term for the spice (sativus) however, refers to the yellow-orange colour of the stamen and the pistil. However, it’s common name, saffron, is simply the derived name of the Arabic word for yellow (zaffran).
Some 80 different species, distributed throughout North Africa, Europe and Asia, are known to belong to this plant family, but the world's best saffron is undoubtedly the one that grows in Afghanistan.
This delicate purple flower blooms once a year during fall over the course of 3 weeks, and contains 3 vibrant red stigmas only. Everything about this spice has a sense of sacredness: it needs to be harvested mid-morning, on a sunny day, when the flowers are still closed in order to protect the delicate stigmas inside. The stigmas are later carefully picked by hand, with tweezers.
Prices of Saffron
Here’s an astonishing fact: it takes about 1,000 flowers to produce just one ounce of saffron! It is no surprise then that the prices of saffron are at the top considering the harvesting conditions of the crocus sativus and the little yield of the flowers. The real deal often flirts with the prices of gold - but it is totally worth it: a very small quantity goes a long way. A few threads only should suffice to your recipe or your concoction, but they have to be of the best saffron.
A Unique Taste
You will recognize a high quality saffron by the deep red colour of its threads, and the fragrant aroma it diffuses in the surroundings. The best saffron has a pungent, earthy flavour that can have subtle notes of fruit, honey, or flowers. Its somewhat indescribable notes are due to the chemicals called safranal and picrocrocin. They are responsible for giving the plant its distinct taste and bright yellow tone when infused.
Since its early years, saffron has been used as a tool in natural medicine. Filled with a range of antioxidants like crocetin, safranal, and crocin, saffron helps protect the body from harmful free radicals that cause a number of ailments and diseases. Saffron was soaked in wine by the ancient Romans in the belief that it would cure hangovers. The spice had also been thought to have sedative, antispasmodic, expectorant, and aphrodisiac properties. This superfood can be consumed directly or via saffron extract, infused in piping hot water and drank as a tea, or as a supplement.
Saffron is filled with many bodily health benefits, but this spice is also good for the mind. Crocin and crocetin both contain brain-boosting properties, protecting the health of brain cells and improving cognition.
Cuisines of the World
Saffron is most commonly used in Mediterranean, Asian, and European cuisine. However, this worldly spice can also be found in a range of dishes around the globe, from Greek rice dishes to rich Indian and Sri Lanken recipes. Saffron is best put to use in dishes that have a significant amount of liquid, like the French bouillabaisse and Italian risotto, as the simmering process is necessary to unleash the full flavor. But how to use it?
The best way is to break down the stigmas using a mortar and pestle, before grinding the saffron threads into a powder. The spice should then be added early to the hot water or cooking liquid. This way, you will make sure to make the most of this costly herb, allowing it to release the full extent of the color and aromatics it contains. Again, a small amount of this valuable spice goes a long way: a pinch of threads will tint and flavour your whole dish.
A few meal ideas you can prepare incorporating saffron are:
- Saffron Risotto with Butternut Squash (Vegan)
- Spanish Paella
- French Bouillabaisse
- Biryani Rice
- Tachin (Persian Saffron Rice)
- Swedish Saffron Buns
Give this superfood a chance and try Mira’s pure Afghan saffron in your favourite recipe!