Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Golden Sunshine of Saffron 1: The History

Saffron, ζαφορά, زَعْفَرَان ...However you decide to call it, the yellowish-red stigmata of saffron spice have mesmerised people and their imagination for millenia rendering it perhaps the costliest spice by weight in the world, its worth comparable to the gold-like hue it imparts to anything it touches. Prized for its contribution of both colour and flavour in food and drink (especially wine) as well as in the preparation of various unguents and cosmetics its history is lost back in civilizations lost under the ashes and the sand of long ago. The resourceful Cleopatra of Egypt used saffron in her warm bath for its colouring and cosmetic traits, but also before encounters with men, believing that saffron would give lovemaking more pleasure. Less venereally-predisposed people scattered saffron threads across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. But what is this mysterious saffron spice and how did it became the stuff of legend, war and the coveted item of every connoiseur on the planet?

Saffron is nothing less than the three stigmata (Greek plural for stigma) of each saffron crocus blossom (Crocus sativus), a species of crocus of the Iridaceae family. The word originates from the 12th-century Old French term safran, which itself derives from the Latin safranum (The modern Italian zafferano and the Spanish azafrán comprise natural linguistic evolution). The Arabs called it aṣfar (أَصْفَر‎), which means "yellow," via the Persian paronymous zaʻfarān (زَعْفَرَان‎)and it was thus transported to the Greek as zafora/ζαφορά. The wild precursor of domesticated crocus was Crocus cartwrightianus, native in Crete, Greece, and it seems that human cultivators bred wild specimens selecting them for their long stigmata. The result was that a sterile mutant form, the afore mentioned Crocus sativus, emerged in late Bronze Age. The beauty of the Minoan frescoes in the Cretan palaces and the mansions at the nearby colony island of Santorini is a glimpse into a happy civilization that luxuriated in peace and harmony with nature. The "Saffron Gatherers" fresco appearing on the walls of Xeste 3 building (1600–1500 BC) at the Akrotiri site, Santorini, depicts women one with a shaved and dyed head, another with thick black curls in colourful robes that leave their whitechests free from constraint gathering saffron blossoms and stigmata for aromatizing and therapeutical purposes.
In the Minoan palace of Knossos, the famous Crocosyllektis/Κροκοσυλλέκτης (=saffron-gatherer) fresco of a blue monkey (erroneously re-assembled as a man by Sir Athur Evans, but later re-instated in its true form) reminds us how much vivid the cultivation was in people's consciousness. Another fresco on Santorini has a Goddess supervising the harvesting of saffron, her unerring eye intent on the gatherers, while a woman close by is trating her ailing foot with saffron. The volcanic eruption of Thera/Santorini buried the frescoes into ash for the safe-keeping of centuries to come, leaving legends recounting tales of brazen sailors embarking on perilous voyages to Soli in Cicilia in the hunt for saffron to use for ointments and perfumes. In one of the most tragic tales, reprised by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, the handsome youth Crocus sets out in pursuit of the nymph Smilax in the woods near Athens. But despite her initial interest, Smilax soon bores of him and transforms Crocus into a saffron crocus flower, the radiant stigmata the only manifestation of his virile and passionate desire for Smilax. It is therefore no coincidence that saffron was widely associated with professional courtesans, known in Greek as heterae/ἑταῖραι who used saffron for igniting passions. Even primitive mascara was coloured and aromatized with saffron to render eyelashes more alluring. The intense hay-like scent of saffron with its slightly metallic edge also made it a perfect deodoriser, prompting townsfolk in the island of Rhodes to wear pouches of the spice on their person in order to mask the presence of malodorous fellow citizens during outings to the theatre.

Saffron-based pigments were found in prehistoric paint used in 50,000 year-old cave art found in today's Iraq, leading us to believe that crocus was transported to other regions very far back. And although the Sumerians did not cultivate it but imported it from the West they did use saffron as an ingredient in their remedies and magical potions. The first written documentation in the Middle East happens in a 7th century BC Assyrian botanical reference compiled under Ashurbanipal while it famously makes its appearence in King Solomon's Song of Songs. Dye works operating in Sidon and Tyre used saffron baths to give a less intense purple (ie.regal) hue to royal pretenders and commoners, by bathing the garments in one infusion of πορφύρα (a sea urchin giving an intense red-purple dye) and two dips of saffron instead of the original three of the former for royals. Ancient Persians used it as both a drug and an aphrodisiac and when the Greek king Alexander the Great campaigned in Asia, he used Persian saffron in his infusions, rice, and baths, thus having his troops mimicking him (saffron was considered an excellent cure for battle wounds) and bringing saffron-bathing back to Greece after centuries.

Phoenicians, the dynamic uber-merchants of antiquity took it upon themselves to spread saffron to the edges of the Mediterranean: Perfumers in Rosetta and medicine-men in Gaza bought their product and thus Romans later on embraced saffron as a panacea: Stirred it into their wines, strewing it in halls and streets as potpourri, and makeing scented offering to their gods. Emperor Nero entered Rome stepping on saffron stigmata and petals along the streets (one would shudder to think of the sheer waste of energy and money in this), doctors used it in the famous Mithridatum (an anti-poison remedy created by legendary king Mithridates VI of Pontus, who thus became immune to poisons), while the wealthy classes daily bathed in saffron-infused water. Although according to Willard (2001) Roman colonists transported saffron to southern Gaul whent they settled there, resulting in extensive cultivation until 271AD whereupon Italy was invaded by barbarian hordes en masse, other researchers such as Goyns (1999) claim saffron returned to France either with 8th-century Moors or with the Avignon Papacy in the 14th century. Of course the 14th century was literally plagued by greater concerns: The Black Death, an epidemic of bubonic plague that cost Europe one third of its population, raised the demand for saffron-based medicine. Importation was done via Venetian and Genoan ships from southern and Mediterranean lands such as Rhodes, Greece. When one shipment of the precious essence was stolen a fourteen-week long "Saffron War" erupted! From then on saffron cultivation spread throughout Europe, arriving in Norfolk and Suffolk, Engalnd. Even a whole town was named after saffron: Saffron Walden in Essex, the prime trading epicentre for saffron. Yet the influx of more exotic spices such as chocolate, coffee, tea, and vanilla from newly contacted colonies caused European cultivation and usage of saffron to slowly decline. But histry is full of irony and as tobacco, chocolate and potatoes were imported from the Americas, saffron was brought to them when immigrant members of the Schwenkfelder Church left Europe with a trunk containing saffron corms resulting in increasing cultivations in the state of Pensylvannia, surviving even to our days.

Less concrete is the history of the expansion of saffron in the Far East, as contradicting accounts of Kasmir and China sources claim Persian transplantation of saffron via the invasion and colonization of Kashmir (It's interesting to note however that the traditional saffron-hued robes of Buddhist monks in India after Siddharta Gautama's demise are not actually dyed with saffron, but with less expensive turmeric, another spice). Eevn to this day, the 17.8 m monolith of Gomateshwara, dating to 978–993 AD, is anointed with saffron every 12 years by thousands of devotees as part of the Mahamastakabhisheka festival.
Other sources attribute saffron's introduction to China to Mongol invaders by way of Persia. On the other hand, saffron is mentioned in ancient Chinese medical texts, such as the Shennong Bencaojing pharmacopoeia, a tome dating from 200–300 BC. Traditionally attributed to the legendary Yan ("Fire") Emperor Shennong, it documents hundreds of phytochemical-based medical preparations. It's contradictory to what the Chinese themselves however say, when they give saffron a Kashmiri provenance in the 3rd century AD.

Whatever the edge between truth and legend is, the sunshine spice of saffron is a fascinating exploration into the very core of history's fiber.

Realted reading on Perfume Shrine: the Saffron Series

Fresco "Saffron Gatherers" from Akrotiti, Santorini and "Saffron-gatherer" from Knossos, Crete, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Ooo! Are you gonna do a spice series now? Thank you for such an informative article.

  2. Thank you for starting this saffron series. I've realized that it's one of my favorite notes. Love it in Idole de Lubin and Agent Provocateur. I'm looking forward to finding out what other fragrances feature this note.

  3. stella p17:49

    Ah, thank you again for a very interesting post, and saffron is such a nice treat in bakery in this part of the year. Se this!

  4. Once again you are a great source of info and I'm super stoked about where you are heading ;-)

  5. stella p17:53

    Ps: the pattern these buns (see the link) are made in are very old, some much older than christianity, perhaps even dates back to the bronse age (the sun symbols and some others that are difficult to interpret)

  6. Mike Perez21:17

    Wow - as informative as always Helg.

    I love eating saffron (in food), oddly I don't like wearing/smelling it. :(

  7. Dain,

    that would be a super ambitious project, with so many spices vying for attention! We'll see...Saffron for starters and we'll take it from there :-)
    Thanks for the compliment.

  8. Marsi,

    you're very welcome. I also enjoy it in fragrances, I will devote a post on which fragrances feature it, rest assured.

  9. S,

    thanks! Actually the chemistry part was to be the second part of my series. :-)

  10. A,

    we'll see, I guess ;-)

  11. S,

    I think geometrical stuff is super-ancient. And this ouroboros pattern too.

  12. M,

    what a shame! (LOL) Not even one frag with it won you over??

  13. What a fabulous history. Thank you! I love cooking with saffron and now I feel like I know it more intimately...

  14. Thanks for this lovely article, E. I love saffron, too, in both food and fragrance.

  15. Elizabeth05:26

    Oh, how I love saffron! Thanks for the really interesting article.

  16. You're very welcome, Daily! :-)
    Cooking with saffron is wonderful, it's one of my favourite spices as well.

  17. J,

    thanks for your kind words. It's a multi-purpose thing, isn't it? :-)

  18. Elizabeth,

    you're most welcome. Glad to see so many fans of saffron gathered here!

  19. Wonderful!One spice can tell so much history.

    A friend of mine also uses saffron threads in abstract painting. She drops then into thinned gel medium, and the color spreads,she says, in an interesting way. I'm going to try this one of these days...


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