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Spice Descriptions and Uses

Saffron Crocus sativus

Description

Saffron (Crocus sativus) is a bulbous perennial of the iris family (Iridaceae) treasured for its golden-coloured, pungent stigmas, which are dried and used to flavour and colour foods and as a dye. Saffron is named among the sweet-smelling herbs in Song of Solomon 4:14. It has a strong, exotic aroma and a bitter taste. A golden-coloured, water-soluble fabric dye was distilled from saffron stigmas in India in ancient times. Shortly after Buddha died, his priests made saffron the official colour for their robes. The dye has been used for royal garments in several cultures. As a perfume, saffron was strewn in Greek and Roman halls, courts, theatres, and baths; it became especially associated with the hetaerae, a professional class of Greek courtesans. The streets of Rome were sprinkled with saffron when Nero made his entry into the city. The name saffron comes from the Arabic za’faran, which means yellow.

Distribution

Believed native to the Mediterranean area, Asia Minor, and Iran, the saffron crocus has long been cultivated in Iran and Kashmir and is supposed to have been introduced into Cathay by the Mongol invasion. It is mentioned in the Chinese materia medica. In early times, however, the chief seat of cultivation was in Cilicia, in Asia Minor. It was cultivated by the Arabs in Spain about 961 and is mentioned in an English leechbook, or healing manual, of the 10th century but may have disappeared from western Europe until reintroduced by the crusaders. During various periods, saffron has been worth much more than its weight in gold; it is still the most expensive spice in the world. Saffron is cultivated chiefly in Spain, France, Sicily, Italy (on the lower spurs of the Apennines Range), and in Iran, and Kashmir.

Botany

Saffron is a bulbous, autumn-flowering, perennial of the iris family. The flowers have three bright, orange-red stigmas which are the true saffron. The three stigmas are handpicked from each flower, spread on trays, and dried over charcoal fires for use as a food flavouring and colouring. A pound (0.45 kilogram) of saffron represents 75,000 blossoms. Saffron contains 0.5 to 1 percent essential oil, the principal component of which is picrocrocin. The colouring matter is crocin.

Aroma and flavour

Saffron is used to colour and flavour many Mediterranean and Oriental dishes, particularly rice and fish, and English, Scandinavian, and Balkan breads. It is an important ingredient in bouillabaisse.

Culinary, medicinal and other use

This spice is also widely used in sweet recipes like milky rice or vermicelli puddings and sweet custard-like desserts from India. It flavors baked goods and is one of the ingredients in the liqueur Chartreuse. It is used in sedatives, as an antispasmodic and for flatulence. It is also used in perfumes and dyes