From the Sept/Oct '05 issue of The Essential Herbal Magazine, submitted by Susanna Reppert of The Rosemary House
“The World’s Costliest Spice – Saffron”
Almost all cultures have included Saffron in their cuisine. From the ancient Phoenicians to the Pennsylvania Dutch, saffron has always been the most costly and desirable of the seasonings. Spanish paella or arroz con pollo, the fisherman’s bouillabaisse, Swedish saffron buns, Indian curries, African couscous, Italian rissoto, chicken potpie and gravies, fish sauces and coloring for butter and cheeses are just a few of its uses in international cookery.
Commercially cultivated in Span, saffron can be grown in all temperate climates. It is a fall blooming crocus (Crocus sativus) which is planted now to bloom next fall. The harvest is the little orange stigmas, three per flower, which accounts for its costliness. More than 200,000 stigmas , make a pound of saffron , all laboriously picked by hand.
Once the herb of only wealthy, thrifty Pennsylvania Dutch insure their supply of this distinctive seasoning by growing their own. Saffron is easily grown in any sunny well drained garden where it enjoys an occasional feeding of bonemeal and compost and soon forms a colony of little productive bulbs.
Plant the corms two inches apart and three to five inches deep in average well drained soil but – a word to the wise – mark the spot! The bulbs are dormant most of the time and vulnerable to over planting or inadvertent weeding. When the small lavender crocus like flowers appear (they open only in sun) harvest the orange stigmas, air dry them on a sheet of white paper and then store your precious saffron in a tightly lidded dark glass bottle.
Used in Biblical times as seasoning, medicine and dye, in ancient Rome, Greece and the Orient Saffron was also a perfume. Aromatic, hot and pungent to the taste, today it colors cakes, and confections golden yellow or adds distinctive flavor to exotic dishes. The Arabs believed that saffron kept in the house would drive away dreaded lizards. In the middle ages, adulterers of saffron where beheaded for their crime. It has been written that Henry VIII so craved saffron that he forebade the ladies of his court to use the rare spice to dye their golden hair. The Song of Solomon provides a lyrical reference”…an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits: camphour, with spikenard, spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes. With all the chief spices: … Awake, O north wind: and come, thou South: blow upon my garden , that the spices thereof may flow out.”