It is known as one of the most precious spices in the world: saffron. As early as 50,000 years ago, the aromatic smelling flower stigmas of the Crocos sativus are said to have been used for dyeing clothes. Today, saffron is known primarily as a spice: In particular, saffron is used in cereal dishes. In addition, saffron is known as a dye that colors desserts golden yellow.
Real and fake saffron
Saffron is not only one of the most precious spices in the world, it is also one of the most faked spices in the world: there are various testing methods to verify genuine saffron. Traders who deal in saffron resort to laboratory tests to detect fake saffron when in doubt.
In the Middle Ages, saffron counterfeiters were severely punished: checkpoints were set up in larger cities to track down counterfeiters.
Cultivation and harvest
Saffron is obtained from a genus of crocuses (Crocos sativus) that blooms in the fall: Other crocuses usually bloom in spring. From June to mid-September, the seeds of the saffron plant are sown. After sowing, it takes a year for the plants to flourish: In October of the year after sowing, the saffron is ready to harvest. Crocus sativus can be grown almost anywhere on earth.
According to tradition, the saffron harvest begins in the early morning: just after sunrise, before the crocuses open, it is time to harvest the saffron.
After the harvest, the saffron is dried in the sun.
Saffron as a remedy
Saffron plays a major role not only as a spice: among the ancient civilized peoples of the Orient, saffron was a proven remedy. To this day, saffron has a reputation as a healing plant.
The main effects of saffron include anti-inflammation, pain relief and antioxidation.
In particular, saffron is said to protect the skin and improve vision.
In addition, saffron is said to increase the feeling of satiety: thus, saffron reduces the appetite for sweet snacks.
Last but not least, saffron helps against stomach problems of all kinds.
As is common with many precious commodities, saffron should not be overdosed: An overdose can not only bring the bitter substances of saffron into focus, but also lead to unpleasant phenomena.
The spice saffron is mentioned several times in the Old Testament and in the works of Homer: in addition, during the first century AD Dioscorides (Greek physician), Pliny the Elder (Roman writer) and Columella (Roman agrarian writer) described the many uses of saffron as a remedy, ointment ingredient, in drinks and for seasoning dishes.
Origin of saffron
The Greeks most likely learned about saffron from the Phoenicians: The Phoenicians, in turn, probably adopted saffron from the people of India.
The fact that the Romans were already familiar with saffron in the first century AD is due to Greek influences.
Various sources suggest that Greece is the birthplace of saffron in its present form.
At the time of the Roman emperors, saffron had the status of a luxury item in the Roman Empire: even then, it was relatively costly and involved high labor costs to harvest saffron and bring it into the spice trade.
In the Middle Ages, saffron made its way into the European cultural area: the Crusaders brought saffron back home with them from their crusades.
From the 17th century onwards, the importance of saffron as a healing plant declined sharply: as late as the 15th and 16th centuries, saffron was still cultivated in large quantities in Central and Southern Europe.
For several centuries, the healing properties of saffron fell into oblivion: it’s only in recent decades that saffron has experienced a renaissance as a medicinal plant.
One kilo of saffron is obtained from about 100,000 to 300,000 flowers. This means that one gram of saffron alone contains almost 200 blossoms. This explains the extremely high labor costs involved in extracting saffron.
Today, saffron comes from Spain, Morocco, Afghanistan, Italy, Greece and Switzerland. Italian saffron comes from Sardinia, from Abruzzo and from Tuscany: it is impossible to imagine Italian cooking and baking culture without saffron. Pasta con le Sarde or the saffron cake are just examples.
Saffron from Switzerland has its own history: it comes from the municipality of Mund in the canton of Valais at an altitude of 1,200 meters. After the Saffron War in the 14th century, Basel rose to become the saffron metropolis.
Although only one to four kilograms of saffron are harvested per year in Switzerland, the tradition continues to this day: there is a saffron museum in the municipality of Mund, and people here have always been aware of the healing powers of saffron.
Saffron is not only one of the most precious spices in the world, but also one of the most versatile spices: Until today, the medicinal benefits of saffron are used. In addition, saffron has a very long history and tradition.
In addition to the yellowish pigment, saffron contains flavoring essential oils and bitter substances. The numerous counterfeits and limited availability make the precious spice a myth.
Cover image: Saffron from Sardinia, arranged in olive wood spice bowls, © Simon von Ludwig