Spice, medicine, pigment, passion


by Sofi Thanhauser


Claire Callagy

The taste of saffron adds a special dimension to milks, paellas, risottos and breads.  

Saffron is a magic sounding word, especially when whispered. It is a kind of one-word incantation that summons a flavor and color all at once, and it trails behind it intimations of passion and distant mysteries.

Saffron comes from fire-colored stigma of the purple crocus, Crocus sativus. The Greek myth of Crocus and Smilax tells how Crocus, an Athenian youth, fell in love with the beautiful nymph named Smilax when he came upon her dancing in the forest with her friends. For a time, Smilax was flattered by his adoration, but when it became a nuisance, she turned him into a small purple flower with a fiery orange heart.

The saffron crocus flowers in the fall. All summer long, the corm of the crocus lies dormant. Then, after all the plants around it have gone to seed, its narrow green leaves shoot out of the earth, to bud and blossom in October.

The three fiery stigma of each crocus are harvested by hand, and one ounce of saffron contains 14,000 stigmas. For this reason, saffron is considered the most valuable spice in the world, and today costs about $1,000 a pound.

This spice is native to southwest Asia, and evidence of saffron’s use by humans predates written history. Saffron-based pigments can be found in the 50,000-year-old cave paintings in Northern Iraq.

Strands of saffron stain the legendary figures of antiquity. On his campaigns, Alexander the Great bathed in saffron, ate saffron rice, and made infusions with saffron to cure his battle wounds. In her romantic campaigns, Cleopatra bathed in it for its aphrodisiacal powers. According to legend, saffron was scattered on the streets of Rome to welcome the emperor Nero.

Saffron was used to dye the veils of brides in ancient Tyre, and the breasts and arms of newly married Indian women. Shortly after the death of Siddhartha Guatama Buddha in 500 B.C., his priests chose saffron dyes for their robes.

Saffron has long been valued for its medicinal powers. In ancient Persia, strands of saffron were scattered on the bed or mixed into the teas of one afflicted by melancholy. During the Black Death in the 14th century, demand for saffron-based medicine was so great that when a ship carrying saffron was stolen by a noblemen it sparked the fourteen-week-long “Saffron War.” Today, scientists investigate its potential as an anticancer and anti-aging agent.

It is also, of course, a wonderful seasoning for food, especially grain. It is an essential ingredient to the paellas of Spain and couscous of Morocco. It is used in rice dishes of Iran, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan.

Best of all, saffron can be grown in your backyard. Rebecca Gilbert, of Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark, has been planting saffron crocuses for the past four years. Last year she harvested about 3 grams which, she says, “is not a lot of anything else, but it is for saffron.” Because the harvesting is so labor-intensive, it would be a difficult crop to grow commercially, she says, “But I impressed some chefs on my Christmas list.”