Focus on Herbs: Saffron
by Lynne Latella
According to myth, Crocus, a mortal, fell in love with Smilax, a nymph. When he was rebuffed by her, or when he witnessed her death (depending on the version), he was turned into a lovely purple crocus. Considered the most expensive spice in the world, saffron — related to the iris — comes from the stigmas of crocuses. Underscoring its value, in the Middle Ages one Italian town paid its war debt not only in money, but also with saffron. Why the high price? The plant produces no seeds and it takes about 60,000 stigmas, picked by hand, to make a pound of dried saffron.
Saffron’s use was first recorded in 1500 b.c.e. During excavations in the area of Greek Islands, frescoes were uncovered that depicted saffron gathering. Its name is derived from the Arabic word for "yellow." It was highly prized by Egyptians and Romans for its aroma, flavor, color and aphrodisiac qualities. Therefore, it became an important ingredient in dyes, perfumes, medicinal and culinary preparations. Hippocrates wrote of its therapeutic properties, as did many other healers throughout the ages.
The aroma of saffron is sometimes likened to sea air. But it is the pungent taste and striking color that has made it so popular in culinary preparations particularly associated with central Asia, India and Mediterranean countries. Because of the price, it is fortunate that only a small amount is needed in any dish. Often turmeric, safflower, calendula or marigold is sold as saffron; but the only similarity is in the color. None of the substitutes, shamelessly masquerading as the authentic spice, can begin to compare flavor-wise.
Although saffron is most commonly known as a culinary spice, it has been used for centuries to cure numerous ailments. It was an English custom to prescribe saffron tea flavored with brandy for measles. In Ayurvedic medicine, it has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments, such as alcoholism and skin diseases. Taken daily, it helps to build the body’s resistance to diseases such as colds and asthma. In a glass of warm milk flavored with honey, 50 mg of saffron can be a healthful tonic.
Saffron has been known to:
• Reduce inflammation
It may have a healing effect on diabetes, enlarged liver and bruises, as well.
As a medicinal remedy, saffron must be used sparingly, which is easy to do because of its expense. High amounts can be toxic. Culpepper wrote in The Complete Herbal, "The use of it ought to be moderate and reasonable, for when the dose is too large, it produces a heaviness of the head and sleepiness."
Saffron from Spain is generally regarded as the best quality. For culinary use, buy it whole, not ground. Soak the threads in a small amount of hot water to extract all the flavor and color. Store unused saffron in the refrigerator or freezer to extend its power. It pairs well with seafood, poultry and grains.
The Coop carries prepackaged, whole saffron threads.