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Packaged Saffron From Iran
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Published on 14 Jumaada Ul Awal, 1424.

Saffron - The Costliest Condiment

By Shaheen Perveen

The Saffron Flower

Mention saffron and one's mind goes wafting amidst the exotic aroma of the most luxuriant spice, rivalling ounce for ounce, the cost of gold. The world’s costliest condiment is the connoisseur’s delight that lends the dish an aura of celebration, amidst a dash of colour. Saffron is derived from Arabic Za’fran which refers to golden yellow – the ancient dye used to colour the bridal veils in the Arab world.

The Saffron FlowerBeyond the culinary menu, the use of saffron was wide and varied. History stands witness to the opulent Roman and Greek halls and theatres enlivened with saffron. Greek courtesans perfumed their luxuriant baths with saffron, while the Phoenicians dedicated it to their goddess Astarte. The streets of Rome were strewn with saffron when Nero entered the city. Saffron was Prophet Solomon’s ('a) fragrant delight.

The earliest use of saffron is credited to the people of the Indus Valley Civilization at Mohenjo-Daro, who used it as an edible herb and a dye. However bits of saffron were also discovered in Egyptian mummies and some people attribute the Mediterranean area to be the place of origin for saffron. Its earliest cultivation is believed to be in Cilicia, southern Turkey in the ancient town of Corycus where saffron was referred to as Crocus. An Indian legend attributes the spice to be a gift from the water god (Taksaka Naga) to Waghbhatta, the physician who cured the god’s eye infection.

The enchanting saffron colour has always been identified with royalty and throughout its long history saffron has remained almost unaffordable. It was a matter of pride to display one's pelf and power by wearing clothes dyed in saffron. In ancient India it was a popular fabric dye and later the Buddhist monks adopted it as the colour of their robes. In ancient Ireland, the king’s mantle used to be dyed with saffron and a saffron dyed shirt was a status symbol. Mughal monarchs like Akbar and Jehangir were no less seduced by the charms of saffron. They mention it in their respective memoirs and describe the spectacle of saffron fields as the most enchanting and fastidious. Homer, Pliny, Hippocrates, Chaucer, Shakespeare, among others refer to this glorious herb.

Type A Saffron From IranThe physicians appreciated the properties of saffron and the rich condiment went well with various medical preparations. Saffron contains an essential oil ( terpenes and esters) and constituents like crocin and picrocorcin. The tiny stigma of Crocus Sativus exhilarates the spirits when taken in small doses, but if used in large doses, it induces immoderate mirth. It is believed to aid digestion, cure heart ailments, serve as a sedative and has even proved to be a powerful aphrodisiac and an anti-spasmodic drug. Pregnant women should avoid saffron in large doses as it may lead to abortion. Swiss children can be seen with bits of saffron tied to their necks in order to prevent diseases. The Germans carried a pouch of saffron to ward off plague.

A good number of traditional remedies, therefore contain saffron, which is equally popular in the cosmetic world. It begins with the Song of Solomon, where the virtues of saffron are extolled. Next we hear of Cleopatra’s make-up kit to be rich in saffron. Ladies of the court of Henry VII, used saffron to dye their hair and as a cheaper alternative they even used marigold flowers. The Irish slept between saffron coloured sheets to strengthen their limbs, while the English believed that drinking saffron tea made one quite jolly. Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa speaks of Kashmiri women painting their breasts with saffron. Chinese are also fond of rubbing themselves with saffron after the bath in order to acquire the golden sheen of Buddha.

Today saffron is recognised more as a popular culinary ingredient. French bouillabaisse, Italian risotto, Spanish paella and Indian pulao or biryani simply can’t do in absence of saffron. While saffron buns have long been popular in England, the English are rendered sprightly by a liberal use of saffron in sweet meats, broth, pastry and confectionery. Edward III introduced saffron among the farmers of Essex and soon it was cultivated in Saffron Walden where the growers were referred to as ‘crokers.’

Saffron growing on the mountain sides in SwitzerlandCome November and the saffron fields are worth a look. Even the clouds in the brilliant blue sky seem to reflect the colour of the purple field below. Fragile saffron flowers bloom with sunrise and are destined to die by sunset. It therefore, becomes an arduous task for the cultivators to pluck the arrogant purple flowers before they wilt and render the precious stigmas useless. People remain at this back breaking job throughout the flowering season, where the entire household is involved in one or the other processing job that continues till late in the night.  

Once the tiny flowers are plucked they are sent for indoor processing where the red stigmas are separated with considerable skill and the petals discarded. Without losing time the stigmas are dried in the sun or roasted over charcoal flame before being packed for sale. It is only after stripping around 150,000 flowers that one kilo of saffron is obtained. Each flower has only three filaments of the stigma of the crocus sativus.

Saffron Workers in IranOne reason for saffron’s great cost is that the spice is still untouched by the industrial age and continues to be stripped, harvested and roasted by hand. Moreover, its growth is confined to very few places in the world. Invading Arabs, who were the most shrewd spice traders, introduced azafran (Spanish word for saffron derived from Arabic zafran) to Spain around the 10th century and four centuries later Spain became a leading producer (accounting for 3/4 of the world production) and exporter of the precious spice. Kashmir ranks next and the saffron sellers sell it with a guarantee tag attached to their product. Most of them promise a reward of thousand rupees for proving their product to be impure or inferior.

Adulteration in saffron is deemed to be a serious offence, which invited severe punishments. Encyclopaedia Britannica mentions the regular inspection of saffron during 15th century Germany and there are descriptions of people being burnt alive in public along with their adulterated saffron. Saffron can be adulterated with turmeric, marigold, bits of coloured wax, silk, oil, glycerine or molasses, etc. Exhausted saffron, discarded parts of the flowers like style, antlers and stamens made to look like stigmas often go unnoticed.

Genuine saffron is best purchased from dealers of repute and the price is never bargained for fear of losing quality. Inexpensive saffron turns brown with age and does not exude the aroma retained in the fresh pack, which is dark but bright red.

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Last Updated Monday, 11 August 2008