Saffron

There are several bulbs which were cultivated by man since early antiquity. One such bulb was the lavender-flowered, fall-blooming crocus (C. sativus), which should not to be confused with the poisonous autumn crocus (Colchicum spcs).

While this was a highly-prized flower rather than an edible root, it wasn't grown because the flower was so beautiful. It was grown because the flower produced saffron, which was quite valuable in the ancient world. It was used as a spice, a dye, a medicine, and also in perfumes. In medicine, it was said to get rid of back-ache and even paralysis.

The people best known as ancient growers of saffron were the Minoans on the island of Crete. These people traded saffron throughout the eastern Mediterranean and they had done it since 1550 BC as evidenced by a vase-painting from that time. Excavations in Knossos, Crete, brought to light some frescoes where saffron is depicted. The most famous of these frescoes is the "saffron gatherer", where it was depicted that there was a monkey amongst the saffron flowers. The Minoans grew it throughout the Aegean region and the parts of Asia Minor which were under their control.

In ancient Persia, saffron had other uses as well as being a spice. It was considered a medicinal plant, but more importantly, it was used as a dye, which along with royal purple made the battle robes of the Persian Army the most splendid in the ancient world. They were also the first to discover that properly cured saffron will stay fresh for a hundred years. The saffron crocus occurs naturally in Iran and its cultivation has been recorded in a number of Iranian provinces. Saffron still constitutes a high quality export for Iran and many believe Iranian saffron to be superior to any other.

Etymologically, the word crocus has its origin from the Greek word "croci" which means the weft, thread used for weaving on a loom and mythological, according to Ovidius, the plant took its name from the youth Crocus, who after witnessing in despair the death of fair Smilax was transformed into this flower.

Saffron was so valuable that a few handfuls of bulbs were all that was needed to secure a loan. If you find it hard to believe that saffron could be so expensive, it might help to understand that it takes 4,000 flowers to produce an ounce of powder.

Because of its high value, the producing nations tried to keep it from spreading to other nations. But it still managed to 'escape.' By the time of Pliny the Elder (1 AD), it had become an important crop in Sicily and the Romans spread it throughout the empire.

Huge quantities of saffron were strewn on the streets of Rome to celebrate Nero's entrance into the city. His "Golden House" was not his only extravagance.

Since then, saffron has made a history of its own among the world's chefs and better home cooks, though I doubt much gets dropped on the floor or the streets.

Buy: Saffron

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