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Saffron History

Saffron has been a key seasoning, fragrance, dye, and medicine for over three millennia.

Saffron is probably the world’s most expensive spices and consists of stigmas plucked from the vegetative propagated and sterile Crocus-sativus, popularly known as saffron crocus.  The resulting saffron is distinguished by his bitter taste, hay-like fragrance, and slight metallic notes. From antiquity until now the history of saffron is full of applications in food, drink, and traditional herbal medicine.

Pre-classical period by the 8th century BC and the 3rd century AD.

The first known saffron image in the ancient-Greek culture is very old 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 Aegean island of Santorini—the ancient Greeks knew it as “Thera”. These frescoes date from 1600–1500 BC. They portray a Minoan goddess supervising the plucking of flowers and the gleaning of stigmas for use in the manufacture of what is possibly a therapeutic drug. A fresco from the same site also depicts a woman using saffron to treat her bleeding foot. These frescoes are the first botanically accurate visual representations of saffron’s use as an herbal remedy.  This saffron-growing Minoan settlement was ultimately destroyed by a powerful earthquake and subsequent volcanic eruption sometime between 1645 and 1500 BC.

For the ancient Mediterranean civilizations, saffron gathered around the Cilician coast was of the top value, particularly for use in perfumes and ointments. Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, rated rival Assyrian and Babylonian saffron from the Fertile Crescent as best to treat gastrointestinal or renal upsets.  Greek saffron from the Corycian Cave of Mount Parnassus was also of note:  the color offered by the Corycian crocus is used as a benchmark in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius and similarly with its fragrance in the epigrams of Martial.

The ancient Greeks and Romans prized saffron as a perfume or deodorizer and scattered it about their public spaces. When Nero entered Rome they spread saffron along the streets; wealthy Romans partook of daily saffron baths. They used it as mascara, stirred saffron threads into their wines, cast it aloft in their halls and streets as a potpourri, and offered it to their deities. Roman colonists took saffron with them when they settled in southern Roman 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.Cleopatra of late Egypt used a quarter-cup of saffron in her warm baths, as she prized its coloring and cosmetic properties. Egyptian healers used saffron as a treatment for all kind of gastrointestinal ailments:  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.

Middle Eastern and Persian

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. Persian saffron used to spice foods and teas, were widely suspected by foreigners of being a drugging agent and an aphrodisiac. These fears grew to forewarn travelers 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 now in Turkey, with harvesting concentrated around the town of Safranbolu; the area still known for its annual saffron harvest festivals. Safranbolu is also the nowadays headquarter city of our Turkish company – and make us an authentic saffron dealer.

Saffron in the old Europe

Saffron cultivation in Europe declined following the fall of the Roman Empire. For several centuries thereafter, saffron cultivation was rare or non-existent. This was reversed when Moorish civilisation spread from North Africa to settle the Iberian peninsula 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.

Saffron demand grows when the Black Death of 1347–1350 struck Europe. It was coveted by plague victims for medicinal purposes, and yet many of the farmers capable of growing it had died off. The finest saffron to be found was from Muslim lands but totally unavailable to Europeans because of hostilities stoked by the Crusades. Rhodes and other places were key suppliers to central and northern Europe. Saffron was one of the contested points of hostility that flared between the declining landed gentry and upstart and increasingly wealthy merchants. The fourteen-week-long “Saffron War” was ignited when one 800 lb (363 kg) shipment of saffron was hijacked and stolen by nobles. That shipment was eventually returned, but the wider 13th–century trade was subject to mass piracy. Thieves plying Mediterranean waters would often ignore gold stores and instead steal Venetian and Genoan marketed saffron bound for Europe. Wary of such unpleasantness, Basel planted its own corms. Several years of large and lucrative saffron harvests made Basel extremely prosperous compared to other European towns. Citizens sought to protect their status by outlawing the transport of corms out of the town; guards were posted to prevent thieves from picking flowers or digging up corms. Yet ten years later the saffron harvest had waned and Basel abandoned the crop.

The pivot of central European saffron trade moved to Nuremberg in Germany. The Venice merchants continued their rule of the Mediterranean Sea trade, trafficking varieties from Sicily, France and Spain, Austria, Crete and Greece, and the Ottoman Empire. For safe and quality trade, the Nuremberg authorities passed Safranschou code to de-louse the saffron business. Adulterators were thus fined, imprisoned, and executed. England was next to have its turn as a major producer. One theory has it that the crop 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 affected 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 a kingly GB£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.”

The Essex town of Saffron Walden got its name as saffron growing and trading centre; its name was originally Cheppinge Walden, and the culinary name change was effected to punctuate the importance of the crop to the townsfolk; the town’s arms still feature blooms from the eponymous crocus. Yet as England emerged from the Middle Ages, rising puritanical sentiments and new conquests abroad endangered English saffron’s use and cultivation. Saffron was also a labor-intensive crop, which became an increasing disadvantage as wages and time opportunity costs rose. And finally, an influx of more exotic spices from the far East due to the resurgent spice trade meant that the English, as well as other Europeans, had many more and cheaper seasonings to dally over.

This trend was documented by the Dean of Manchester, a Reverend William Herbert. He was concerned about the steady decline in saffron cultivation over the course of the 17th century and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution; the introduction in Europe of easily grown maize and potatoes, which steadily took over lands formerly flush with corms, did not help. In addition, the elite who traditionally comprised the bulk of the saffron market were now growing increasingly interested in such intriguing new arrivals as chocolate, coffee, tea, and vanilla. Only in the south of France or in Italy and Spain, where the saffron harvest was culturally primal, did significant cultivation prevail.