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History of Saffron the most valuable spice in the world

Although the origins of saffron are disputed to where it comes from, but considering the way that the Sowing takes place in the months of June and July and must be hot followed by The harvesting that takes place between the end of October-beginning of November and must be start of winter and should be cold. This makes Iranian weather condition perfect for this species of plant. Most confirm that it comes from Orient, because its cultivation was widely spread in Minor Asia far before the birth of Christ.

Human cultivation and use of saffron reaches back more than 3,500 years and spans many cultures, continents, and civilizations. Saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), has remained among the world's most costly substances throughout history. With its bitter taste, hay-like fragrance, and slight metallic notes, saffron has been used as a seasoning, fragrance, dye, and medicine. 

One of the first historic references to the use of saffron comes from Ancient Egypt, where it was used by Cleopatra and other Pharaohs as an aromatic and seductive essence, and to make ablutions in temples and sacred places. However, Egypt does not have the correct weather condition for the flower so it must have come from further north or the Persian Empire.

Saffron was first documented in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical reference compiled under Ashurbanipal. Since then, documentation of saffron's use over a span of 4,000 years in the treatment of some ninety illnesses has been uncovered.  Saffron slowly spread throughout much of Eurasia, later reaching parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania.

Saffron was also highly appreciated in the Classic Greece for its colouring and aromatic properties. It was used as a remedy to sleeplessness and to reduce hangovers caused by wine. It was also used to perfume bathing and as an aphrodisiac.

The English word saffron stems from the Latin word safranum via the 12th-century Old French term safran. Meanwhile, Safranum derives via Persian زعفران (za'ferân). Some argue that it ultimately came from the Persian or Arabic word زَعْفَرَان (za'farān), which is itself derived from the adjective أَصْفَر (aṣfar, "yellow"). However, some give an alternative derivation arguing that زَعْفَرَان (za'farān) is the arabicized form of the Persian word زرپران (zarparān) - "having yellow leaves". Latin safranum is also the source of the Italian zafferano and Spanish azafrán.

Persian Story

Saffron-based pigments have been found in the prehistoric paints used to illustrate beasts in 50,000 year-old cave art found in today's Iraq (north-west of Persian Empire). Later, the Sumerians used saffron as an ingredient in their remedies and magical potions. Sumerians did not cultivate saffron. They gathered their stores from wild flowers, believing that divine intervention alone enables saffron's medicinal properties. Such evidence provides evidence that saffron was an article of long-distance trade before Crete's Minoan palace culture reached a peak in the 2nd millennium BC.

In Persian Achaemenid Empire saffron (Crocus sativus 'Hausknechtii') was cultivated at Derbena and Isfahan in the 10th century BC. There, Persian saffron threads have been found interwoven into ancient Persian royal carpets and funeral shrouds. Saffron was used by ancient Persian worshipers as a ritual offering to their deities, and as a brilliant yellow dye, perfume, and a medicine. Thus, saffron threads would be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. Indeed, Persian saffron threads, used to spice foods and teas, were widely suspected by foreigners of being a drugging agent and an aphrodisiac. These fears grew to forewarn travellers to abstain from eating saffron-laced Persian cuisine.

In addition, Persian saffron was dissolved in water with sandalwood to use as a body wash after heavy work and perspiration under the hot Persian sun. Later, Persian saffron was heavily used by Alexander the Great and his forces during their Asian campaigns. They mixed saffron into teas and dined on saffron rice. Alexander personally used saffron sprinkled in warm bath water. He believed it would heal his many wounds, and his faith in saffron grew with each treatment. He even recommended saffron baths for the ordinary men under him. The Greek soldiers, taken with saffron's perceived curative properties, continued the practice after they returned to Macedonia. Saffron cultivation also reached what is now Turkey, with harvesting concentrated around the northern town of Safranbolu; the area still known for its annual saffron harvest festivals.

The Roman Connection

Saffron played a significant role in the Greco-Roman classical period (8th century BC to the 3rd century AD). However, the first known image of saffron in Greek culture is much older and stems from the Bronze Age. A saffron harvest is shown in the Knossos palace frescoes of Minoan Crete, which depict the flowers being picked by young girls and monkeys. One of these fresco sites is located in the "Xeste 3" building at Akrotiri, on the Greek island of Santorini (known to ancient Greeks as Thera). 

The "Xeste 3" frescoes have been dated from 1600–1500 BC. Various other dates have been given, such as 3000–1100 BC  and the 17th century BC.  They portray a Greek goddess supervising the plucking of flowers and the picking of stigmas for use in the manufacture of a therapeutic drug. 

A fresco from the same site also depicts a woman using saffron to treat her bleeding foot.  These Theran frescoes are the first botanically accurate pictorial representations of saffron's use as an herbal remedy.  The saffron-growing Minoan settlement of Akrotiri on Santorini was ultimately destroyed by a powerful earthquake and subsequent volcanic eruption between 1645 and 1500 BC.[20] The volcanic ash from the destruction entombed and helped preserve the saffron frescoes.

Ancient Greek legends tell of brazen sailors embarking on long and perilous voyages to the remote land of Cilicia, where they travelled to procure what they believed was the world's most valuable saffron. The best-known Greek legend about saffron is the story detailing the tragedy of Crocus and Smilax: The handsome youth Crocus sets out in pursuit of the nymph Smilax in the woods near Athens. During a brief period of idyllic love Smilax is flattered by his amorous advances, but soon is bored by Crocus' attentions. After he continues to pursue her against her wishes, she resorts to bewitching him, transforming Crocus into a saffron crocus flower, with its radiant orange stigmas remaining as a faint symbol of his undying passion for Smilax. The tragedy and the spice would be recalled later by Ovid:

Egyptian healers used saffron as a treatment for all varieties of gastrointestinal ailments. For instance, when stomach pains progressed to internal hemorrhaging, an Egyptian treatment consisted of saffron crocus seeds mixed and crushed together with aager-tree remnants, ox fat, coriander, and myrrh. This ointment or poultice was applied to the body. The physicians expected it to "[expel] blood through the mouth or rectum which resembles hog's blood when it is cooked."

Urinary tract conditions were also treated with an oil-based emulsion of premature saffron flowers mixed with roasted beans; this was used topically on men. Women ingested a more complex preparation.

In Greco-Roman times saffron was widely traded across the Mediterranean by the Phoenicians. Their customers ranged from perfumers in Rosetta, Egypt to physicians in Gaza to townsfolk in Rhodes, who wore pouches of saffron in order to mask the presence of malodorous fellow citizens during outings to the theatre.

For the Greeks, saffron was widely associated with professional courtesans and retainers known as the hetaerae. In addition, large dye works operating in Sidon and Tyre used saffron baths as a substitute. There, royal robes were triple-dipped in deep purple dyes; for the robes of royal pretenders and commoners, the last two dips were replaced with a saffron dip, which gave a less intense purple hue.

The ancient Greeks and Romans also prized saffron for its use as a perfume and deodoriser. They scattered it about public spaces such as royal halls, courts, and amphitheatres. When Emperor Nero entered Rome they spread saffron along the streets, and wealthy Romans made daily use of saffron baths. They also used saffron as mascara, stirred saffron threads into their wines, strewn it in halls and streets as a potpourri, and offered it to their deities. Roman colonists took saffron with them when they settled in southern Gaul, where it was extensively cultivated until the AD 271 barbarian invasion of Italy. Competing theories state that saffron only returned to France with 8th-century Moors or with the Avignon Papacy in the 14th century.

When did Saffron go to India?

Various conflicting accounts exist that describe saffron's first arrival in South and East Asia. The first of these rely on historical accounts gleaned from Persian records. These suggest to many experts that saffron, among other spices, was first spread to India via Persian rulers' efforts to stock their newly built gardens and parks. 

They accomplished this by transplanting the desired cultivars across the Persian empire.  Another variant of this theory states that, after ancient Persia conquered Kashmir, Persian saffron crocus corms were transplanted to Kashmiri soil. The first harvest then occurred prior to 500 BC.  Phoenicians then began in the 6th century BC to market the new Kashmiri saffron by utilising their extensive trade routes. Once sold, Kashmiri saffron was used in the treatment of melancholy and as a fabric dye. Kashmire is currently the only estate in India that has the correct climate for Saffron cultivation.

In India saffron is an indispensable ingredient in many recipes of rice, sweets and ice-creams. It is used in Ayurvedic medicine and in religious rituals. In Saudi Arabia, a real Arabic coffee should have saffron and cardamom.

Also the Traditional Kashmiri legend states that saffron first arrived in the 11th or 12th century AD, when two foreign and itinerant Sufi ascetics, Khwaja Masood Wali and Hazrat Sheikh Shariffudin, wandered into Kashmir. 

The foreigners, having fallen sick, beseeched a cure for illness from a local tribal chieftain. When the chieftain obliged, the two holy men reputedly gave them a saffron crocus bulb as payment and thanks. 

To this day, grateful prayers are offered to the two saints during the saffron harvesting season in late autumn. The saints, indeed, have a golden-domed shrine and tomb dedicated to them in the saffron-trading village of Pampore, India. However, the Kashmiri poet and scholar Mohammed Yusuf Teng disputes this. He states that Kashmiris had cultivated saffron for more than two millennia. Indeed, such ancient indigenous cultivation is alluded to in Kashmiri Tantric Hindu epics of that time.

China and Saffron

Ancient Chinese Buddhist accounts from the Mula-sarvastivadin  monastic order (or vinaya) present yet another account of saffron's arrival in India. According to legend, an arhat Indian Buddhist missionary by the name of Madhyântika (or Majjhantika) was sent to Kashmir in the 5th century BC. When he got there, he reportedly sowed Kashmir's first saffron crop.

From there, saffron use spread throughout the Indian subcontinent. In addition to use in foods, saffron stigmas were also soaked in water to yield a golden-yellow solution that was used as a fabric dye. Such was the love of the resulting fabric that, immediately after the Buddha Siddhartha Guatama's death, his attendant monks decreed saffron as the official colour for Buddhist robes and mantles.

Some historians believe that saffron first came to China with Mongol invaders by way of Persia. Saffron is mentioned in ancient Chinese medical texts, including the vast Bencao Gangmu ("Great Herbal") pharmacopoeia (pp. 1552–78), a tome dating from around 1600 BC (and attributed to Emperor Shen-Ung) which documents thousands of phytochemical-based medical treatments for various disorders.  Yet around the 3rd century AD, the Chinese were referring to saffron as having a Kashmiri provenance. 

For example, Wan Zhen, a Chinese medical expert, reported that "[t]he habitat of saffron is in Kashmir, where people grow it principally to offer it to the Buddha." Wan also reflected on how saffron was used in his time: "The [saffron crocus] flower withers after a few days, and then the saffron is obtained. It is valued for its uniform yellow colour. It can be used to aromatise wine."

In modern times, saffron cultivation has spread to Afghanistan because of the efforts of the European Union and the United Kingdom. Together, they promote saffron cultivation among impoverished and cash-strapped Afghan farmers as an ideal alternative to illicit and lucrative opium production.  They stress Afghanistan's sunny and semi-arid climate as ideal for saffron crocus growth.

Saffron Arival to Europe

Arabs used saffron in medicine for its anaesthetic properties. It was the Arabs who introduced the cultivation of saffron in Spain in the X century. Evidence of different kinds assure that saffron was an irreplaceable ingredient in the hispanic-arabic cooking of that age.

During the Middle Age, saffron became well known in Great Britain. The legend says that, in the period of Edward III, a pilgrim brought a bulb of saffron hidden in a hole in his stick from Middle East to the town of Walden. There the bulb was grown and reproduced giving prosperity to the town.

Saffron cultivation in Europe declined steeply following the fall of the Roman Empire. For several centuries thereafter, saffron cultivation was rare or non-existent throughout Europe. This was reversed when Moorish civilisation spread from North Africa to settle most of Spain as well as parts of France and southern Italy. One theory states that Moors reintroduced saffron corms to the region around Poitiers after they lost the Battle of Tours to Charles Martel in AD 732.  Two centuries after their conquest of Spain, Moors planted saffron throughout the southern provinces of Andalucia, Castile, La Mancha, and Valencia.

During the Renaissance, Venice stood out as the most important commercial center for saffron. In that period saffron was worth its weight in gold, and even today it is still the most expensive spice in the world. But sadly its high price led to its adulteration, which then was often severely punished. Henry VIII, who cherished the aroma of saffron, even condemned to death adulterers.

When the Black Death ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1350, demand for saffron and its cultivation skyrocketed. It was coveted by plague victims for its medicinal properties, but many of the European farmers capable of growing it died off. Large quantities of saffron imports thus came from non-European lands.

Yet the finest saffron threads from Muslim lands were unavailable to Europeans because of hostilities beginning with the Crusades. Thus imports from places such as Rhodes supplied central and northern Europe. Saffron was one of the contested points of hostility that flared between the declining nobleman classes and increasingly wealthy merchants. For example, the fourteen-week-long "Saffron War" was ignited when an 800-pound (360 kg) shipment of saffron was hijacked and stolen by noblemen.

The saffron load, which had been destined for the town of Basel, would at today's market prices be valued at more than US$500,000.

That shipment was eventually returned, but the saffron trade in the 13th century remained the subject of mass theft and piracy. Indeed, pirates plying Mediterranean waters would often ignore gold stores and instead steal Venetian- and Genoan-marketed saffron bound for Europe. The ordinary people of Basel, wary of such future piracy, thus planted their own corms. 

After several years of large and lucrative saffron harvests, Basel grew extremely prosperous compared to other European towns. Basel attempted to protect its status by outlawing the transportation of corms outside the town's borders; guards were posted to prevent thieves from picking flowers or digging up corms. Nevertheless, after ten years the saffron crop failed, and Basel abandoned cultivation.

The centre of central European saffron trade then moved to Nuremberg, while the merchants of Venice continued their dominance of the Mediterranean sea trade. There, saffron varieties from Austria, Crete, France, Greece, the Ottoman Empire, Sicily, and Spain were sold. 

Also sold were many adulterated samples, including those soaked in honey, mixed with marigold petals, or kept in damp cellars in order to increase the saffron threads' weight. This prompted Nuremberg authorities to pass the so-called Safranschou code, which sought to regulate saffron trading.

Saffron adulterators were thereafter fined, imprisoned, and executed via immolation. Soon after, England emerged as a major European saffron producer. Saffron, according to one theory, spread to the coastal regions of eastern England in the 14th century AD during the reign of Edward III. In subsequent years saffron was fleetingly cultivated throughout England. Norfolk, Suffolk and south Cambridgeshire were especially heavily planted with corms. Rowland Parker provides an account of its cultivation in the village of Foxton during the 16th and 17th centuries, "usually by people holding a small amount of land"; an acre planted in saffron could yield a crop worth £6, making it "a very profitable crop, provided that plenty of unpaid labor was available; unpaid labor was one of the basic features of farming then and for another two centuries.

Historically, long-term saffron cultivation only survived in the light, well-drained, and chalk-based soils of the north Essex countryside. Indeed, the Essex town of Saffron Walden got its name as a saffron growing and trading centre. 

Its name was originally Cheppinge Walden and the name was changed to show the importance of the crop to the local area; and today the town's arms feature crocus blooms. Yet as England emerged from the Middle Ages, rising puritanical sentiments and new conquests abroad endangered English saffron's use and cultivation. Puritanical advocates favoured more austere, simple, and un-spiced foods. Saffron was also a labor-intensive crop, which became an increasing disadvantage. Lastly, an influx of additional spices from Eastern lands due to the growing spice trade meant that the English, as well as other Europeans, had more seasonings to choose from.

This trend was later documented by the Reverend William Herbert, who was the Dean of Manchester. He collected samples and compiled information on many aspects of the saffron crocus.[50] He was concerned about the steady decline in saffron cultivation over the 17th century and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. This was due to the introduction in Europe of such easily grown crops as maize and potatoes, which steadily took over lands formerly dedicated to saffron corms.[51] In addition, the elite who traditionally comprised the bulk of the saffron market were now growing increasingly interested in such exotic and new arrivals as chocolate, coffee, tea, and vanilla. Indeed, only in the south of France, Italy, and Spain, where saffron had been deeply incorporated into the local cultures, did significant cultivation remain.

Nowadays saffron forms part of the culinary culture of different regions in the world: In the North of Italy and South of Switzerland, saffron is essential in the preparation of its famous Risotto. In Sweden it is a traditional to bake saffron bread on the day of St. Lucile. Finally, in Spain saffron is an indispensable ingredient in such famous dishes as Paella, Fabada or Pote Gallego.

he sowing takes place in the months of June and July. The bulbs are placed in ridges of about 20 cm. depth. The distance between the bulbs should be of 10 cm. The sowing of bulbs is a very hard job because it is done by hand, and forces you to walk in a bent position for hundreds of yards. A mule follows the sower with a roman plough to cover the ridges.

The harvesting takes place between the ends of October-beginning of November. The rose of saffron blooms at dawn and should stay the least possible time in the plant because it withers quickly and the stigmas loose colour and aroma. This is why they are gathered between dawn and 10 a.m.

Once the flowers are gathered, stigmas are separated from the rest of the flower. The fact that more than 85.000 flowers are needed to obtain just one kilo of saffron gives us an idea of how hard this work is.

The stigmas of saffron have a high level of moisture, so it is necessary to dry them for its good preservation. This is the process of roasting, in which the stigmas get it definitive aspect: bright red, rigid and without wrinkles.

After the process of roasting, the stigmas of saffron would have 1/5 of their original size. This means that for one kg of raw stigmas we will obtain 200 g of saffron ready for consumption. For its perfect preservation, saffron is stored in big wooden trunks lined with metal plate inside protecting it from heat, cold and specially moisture.

Saffron Recipes
Butternut squash risotto with sage and 'Saffron Olive Oil'

August 28, 2011 02:34

Butternut squash risotto with sage and saffron Olive Oil is a lovely recipe that was originally created by Jaimee Mormann. He discusses how intimidated people are with risotto. And when you top that with how intimidated one can be with using saffron,...

Chicken with Tomato and ‘Saffron Olive Oil’ Vinaigrette with Mixed Greens

August 22, 2011 19:18

Very small quantity of Paprika and 'saffron olive Oil can be used here, both of which boost the colour to a vivid orange-red and give it a round, mellow flavour with strong aroma of Saffron. It coats sweet tomatoes, which release their juices and...

Intresting approach by Recipe Curation Site Gojee

July 09, 2011 12:23

There’s no shortage of food recipe sites around the world for virtually any kind of food. Finding good recipes for specific topic can take time and can be overwhelming with all of the options available. Recently launched foodie favorite Gojee, ...

Oven-dried tomato and thyme tart with blue vinny, 'Saffron olive oil' and rocket

May 30, 2011 00:13

Oven-dried tomato and thyme tart with blue vinny, olive oil and rocket by Rick Stein's Vinny cheese tart lends a deliciously creamy flavour, complemented by rich-tasting summery tomatoes. Some also use Goat Cheese and Black Olives with this that ...

Roast-garlic and 'Saffron Olive Oil' bread by James Martin

May 29, 2011 23:48

Roasting brings out garlic's sweetness with 'Saffron Olive Oil' by Eden Aromata. You can discover this in James Martin's delightfully simple recipe for a flavourful starter or snack. Roasting garlic in the oven mellows that harsh raw ...

Grilled Artichokes with 'Saffron Olive Oil', Lemon, and Mint

May 29, 2011 23:12

This dish is Oven Roasted Whole Salmon in Beer & Olive Oil and it is fork-cut ready at the end of Bake time. Cut and place on serving plate; pour a small amount of beer into the 'crisps' left from baking and spoon over each piece. The fre...

25 cl. Saffron Olive Oil

Traditional Pure Saffron

Restaurant show 2011

Eden Aromata has formally launched 'Saffron Olive Oil' at the Restaurant Show 2011 in Earls Court 2 (10 -12th October 2011)

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Restaurant show 2011

Eden Aromata presented the new and unique product 'Saffron Olive Oil' at the UK’s leading trade event for local, regional, national and international fine food and drink.

Restaurant show 2011

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