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April 2017--Saffron

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Saffron

Picture credited to Kenpei Available on Wikimedia Commons 2005

 Crocus sativus
[KROH-kus sa-TEE-vus]
 

Family: Iridaceae 

Pharmaceutical Name: Stigma Croci 

Names: Alicante Saffron, Autumn Crocus, Crocus, Gatinais Saffron, Hay Saffron, Karcom, Spanish Saffron, Stigma Croci; Valencia Saffron, Zaffer;  Safran (German); safran (French); zafferano (Italian); azafrán (Spanish); kesar, kesram, khesa, zuffron, shahi zafran (Indian); kungumappa (Tamil); kunyit kering (Malaysian); saffraan (Dutch); açafrão (Portuguese); saffron (Swedish); fan-hung-hua, zang hong hua (Chinese); safuran (Japanese); za’farãn, Za'fran, Za'tar (Arabic); Kumkuma (Sanskrit); Zafora (Greek); Safron (Amharic); Kerkoom, Kerkum (Armenian); Jafran (Assamese); Jafran, Jaffran, Keshar (Bengali); Shafran (Bulgarian);  

Description: It is a perennial plant, with a rounded bulb and leaves longer than the ciliate flowers.  The flower, which opens in autumn, is formed of six lilac-colored sepals and with orange-red clavate stigmas, longer than the stamens protruding from the lobes of the perigonium. 

Cultivation: What makes saffron so rare and precious is its method of production.  It is the orange-red stigmas of a violet-colored crocus which blooms for only a brief two-week period in autumn. Each flower has only three stigmas which must be picked by hand at dawn before the sun becomes hot. The flowers are discarded and the stigmas are then dried, losing 80% of their weight in this process, which also intensifies saffron’s characteristic flavor. The result is that it takes a staggering 200,000-400,000 stigmas to make only 2 lb of saffron.  Because of this, some have been tempted to adulterate pure saffron.  Adulterated saffron still abounds, especially in powdered form.  Thus it is always best to buy strands which should be bright-orange without any white streaks or light patches.  Pure saffron is always expensive, so be wary of anything which is cheap.  Saffron is propagated from the corm.  It is a perennial in zones 6-10.  Germination is in 8-10 weeks.  Soil temperature should be 70-75F.  Soil: well drained, sandy, fertile, but not too rich.  Low rainfall is best.  pH should be 6-7.8.  Plant corms 3-4 inches deep in spring or early summer.  It is easy to grow in sunny, well-drained positions and can survive well in tiny, dry plots.  It grows best in warm sub-tropical climates that are able to provide a growing season of at least 6 months.  However, it also grows very well in moderate, cool climates, provided the growing season is long. Photoperiod is important for saffron, a short-day plant requiring 11 hours of light/day for flowering.  Although, in theory, the plants can last for 15 years, they should be moved every 2-3 years after flowering and replanted since they progressively work their way deeper in the soil, taking longer to flower and weakening the plant.  Lift and divide them after the foliage dies back in the spring, then store in a cool, dry place for several weeks before replanting.  They are susceptible to disease.  Pick when flower opens—around September.   Dry stigmas between papers in oven or over charcoal.
           
Saffron has a strong perfume and a bitter, honey-like taste, which when added to dishes in pinches, should lend a delicate but distinctive flavor.  When suffusing a pinch of saffron in a cup of warm water, the stigmas should expand at once, their color diffusing the water. 
           
Today it is cultivated on a large scale only in Kashmir, India and in 7 of Spain’s 52 provinces.  Austria, China (Tibet), Italy, Iran, Greece, Switzerland and Turkey produce only enough for domestic consumption and very limited exports.
 

History: Rare and almost as precious as gold, men have risked their lives for it.  Known since prehistoric times, it is thought to have come from Greece and Asia Minor since it was used in ancient Greece and Rome and in biblical lands.  A Chinese medical book from 2600 BC contains the oldest known reference to saffron.  Saffron is the “Karcom” of the Hebrews in Song of Solomon. It was almost certainly introduced to Europe by the Arabs in the 10th century—although legend has it that the Phoenicians took it to Spain, now the country principally associated with its production.  The use of saffron has traditionally relied on societies with a cultured aristocracy able to appreciate its culinary advantages and a slave or peasant class, capable of carrying out its labor-intensive production—hence its widespread use under the Roman, Ottoman and Mogul empires and its relative decline in recent times.  The Romans used it to strew paths and roads literally creating a golden carpet for emperors and princes and it said that when Alexander the Great’s soldiers entered the Vale of Kashmir, they found the saffron crocus growing in great profusion and were so wild with joy that they broke ranks.
           
Saffron was smuggled into England by a pilgrim, who returning from Spain, hid a crocus head in his palmer’s staff, risking death since this Spanish treasure was zealously guarded by law.  Saffron Walden in Essex became the center of its cultivation in England.  By the end of the 18th century its cultivation had all but died out in northern Europe, although it was introduced to Pennsylvania where production continues to this day.
           
Saffron is from the Arab word assfar or zafaran, yellow, while the generic name is derived from the Latin and Greek names for the plant, sativus meaning cultivated.  The saffron crocus has long been associated, especially in the East, with fertility and harvest rites, with physical strength, sexual, and psychic powers and with royalty. 
           
In Greek mythology, Hermes accidentally wounded and killed his friend Crocos. As blood spilled onto the ground, remorseful Hermes turned the drops into the saffron crocus. Another myth tells how the saffron crocus sprang from the warmth of Jove’s body where he had lain with Juno on Mount Ida.  A third legend goes that saffron is the child Krokos, who accidentally slain by a quoit flung from the hand of Mercury, was dipped into celestial dew and changed into a ravishing flower. They say that crocodiles were named after the crocus because the only sincere tears they ever shed were forced by the beautiful fragrance of the saffron crocus.  Irish women believed that saffron-dyed sheets would strengthen the limbs of those who slept between them.

           
Because of its expense, saffron was employed by those wishing to flaunt their wealth.  In the first century A.D., Nero had saffron sprinkled on the streets of Rome for his entry into the city.  Tiny bits of saffron have been found in Egyptian mummies.  Medieval scribes burnished saffron upon foil for use in illuminated manuscripts in the same manner that gold was used for the purpose.  It came to be viewed as capable of reviving spirits.  It was even put in canaries’ drinking water so that they would sing more cheerfully.  Because of the value of saffron, it is called “red gold” in Spain.  Ladies risked the wrath of the fathers of the early Christian Church by using saffron to give their hair a yellow tint.  In Ireland, it used to be believed that saffron had a sanitizing effect, and so it was thought unnecessary to frequently launder clothes that were dyed with saffron.  King Henry the VIII banned the Irish from dyeing their linen with saffron to encourage them to wash their linen more frequently. 
           
Saffron is still important in India today, both in rituals and in food.  A saffron paste-mark called tillak on the forehead is a mark of grace, beneficence and good luck.
           
Ayurveda considers the gloom-dispersing property of saffron to be so potent in restoring animal spirits that it even recommends infusing a few threads of saffron in drinking water to be given “to caged birds when they are molting or otherwise sickly.”
           

Properties: Antispasmodic, diaphoretic, carminative, emmenagogic and sedative.  Its diaphoretic action is strongest with children.   

Constituents: The stigmas constitute the commercial product, which contains a bitter principle (picrocrocin), a glycoside from which is liberated safranal (which gives the aroma) and the carotenoid crocin, and crocon, which is the dye, is so powerful a coloring agent that one part pure crocin dissolved in 150,000 parts water turns the water distinctively yellow.  Also contains lycopene, xanthophyll, seaxanthin, and yellow alpha-, beta- and gamma-carotene.   

Nutritional Profile: one teaspoon saffron has 2 calories.  It provides 0.1 g protein, a trace of fat, 0.5 g carbohydrates, 1 mg calcium and 0.08 mg iron. 

Energetics: spicy, sweet, bitter, neutral 

Meridians/Organs affected:   spleen, heart, liver, kidney 

Medicinal: Saffron has been cited as a remedy for such diverse ills.  In England and the US, penny packets of saffron threads were sold as recently as 50 years ago in pharmacies to cure measles.  Cheaper and superior herbs are easily found to replicate its ability to induce menstruation, treat period pain and chronic uterine bleeding and calm indigestion and colic. 
         Contains a blood pressure-lowering chemical called crocetin.
  Some authorities even speculate that the low incidence of heart disease in Spain is due to that nation’s high saffron consumption.  It is one of the finest blood vitalizers known.  It counteracts inflammatory conditions associated with excess pitta (fire), while at the same time powerfully stimulating the circulation and regulating the spleen, liver and heart. It is very sattvic or spiritually balancing and gives “the energy of love, devotion and compassion.  The flowers are collected in the early mornings and taken indoors where the stigmas are removed, and dried over a slow heat.  Stigmas are used to enrich blood; help blood circulation; hasten eruption of measles; treat irregular menstruation, absence of menstruation, bleeding after labor, asthma, whooping cough, convulsions.

            For menstrual pain: 2 cups of tea per day, taken in the afternoon, and made by boiling 1 gram of threads in 1 liter of water for 10 minutes.  To make a cough syrup: 5 grams of threads should be steeped in 1 liter of hot water with 2.2 pounds of sugar for 30 minutes.  Recommended dosage is 2-4 teaspoons per day. 

CAUTION: In very large doses, saffron may induce abortion.  During pregnancy, take only in amounts normally used in cooking. 

TCM:
In Chinese herbal medicine, saffron stigmas are occasionally used to treat painful obstructions of the chest, to stimulate menstruation and to relieve abdominal pain.
  They regard it as a catalyst to be combined with other herbs.  
 

Actions:  Moves blood; eliminates blood stasis; cools blood, expels toxins; resoves depression and stagnation of Liver qi.

Dosage:  1.5-6. 

Ritual: Gender: Hot; Planet: Sun; Element: Fire; Basic Powers: Purification, clairvoyance, healing.  Make a tea and use to cleanse the hands before healing rituals.  Burn the herb as a healing incense and add to healing mixtures. Drink the tea to induce clairvoyance.  Sometimes used to raise the winds, by throwing it into the air from high places, or by burning it and watching the smoke rise into the air. 

Cosmetic: The use of saffron as a face mask to remove pimples and soothe rashes was limited to royal women or women from the houses of wealthy aristocrats or merchants.  A paste made from saffron on the face and the and exposed parts of the body was applied much as foundation makeup is used by women today.  Not only did this saffron paste impart a smoothness to a woman’s skin, it also gave the skin a golden tint, which was thought to be so desirable that pregnant women even drank saffron infused in milk in the hopes that their unborn infants would acquire golden complexions.  Its fragrance was thought to have an aphrodisiac effect on the senses of a lover.  HAIR COLORANT: immerse a pinch of saffron grains in 1 pint of boiling water and let stand for 10 minutes. The water will take on a bright yellow color.  Use a wash after shampooing and let dry on.  Fair hair will acquire a rich golden tint

Body Lotion: Melt over a low flame 1 cupful of olive oil and one of almond oil and add a pinch of saffron, stirring until the mixture is completely blended and has attained a rich yellow color.  Pour into bottles and use after bathing or swimming, to massage gently into all parts of the body after drying.  

Other Uses: Saffron produces a colorful, although unstable, golden yellow cloth dye.  In medieval days, wealthy women dyed their hair with saffron and monks mixed it with egg white glue making a golden yellow, transparent coloring to illuminate manuscripts.
To dye: use the stigmas plucked in early fall out of the open flowers and dry between layers of paper.  Saffron should be boiled gently for half an hour, then wool should be simmered until the required color is obtained.  Silk should be steeped at about 160F.  There are differing estimates of the amount of flowers needed to produce a specific amount of saffron.  About 88,000 is needed to make a pound.  Alum as a mordant will give yellow to wool and silk. 

Culinary Use: Saffron is mainly found in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and north Indian cookery, although it is used to a limited extent in north Indian cookery, although it is used to a limited extent in cakes and buns in Britain.  It combines perfectly with all kinds of rice dishes from succulent Italian risottos to the perfumed pilaus and puddings of India and the Middle East.  In the Mediterranean, it blends particularly well with fish and seafood.  It is an essential ingredient in the Provencal fish stew, bouillabaisse, and is used to advantage in a paella, a fragrant mix of seafood and rice.  Things to remember: ½  teaspoon of threads is adequate for 4-8 servings of most dishes; powdered saffron is about 3 X as strong as thread saffron; do not use wooden utensils unless the wood is polished; when working with threads, avoid wire whisks; steep saffron before you begin other prep work; powdered saffron will only release in chilled butter—room temperature will not work because it does not provide resistance to work against to release saffron’s color and flavor; for baking, grilling & morning toast, saffron butter can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for at least a week; a pinch means at least 1/ 2 teaspoon of threads; or maximum flavor, do not strain off saffron threads after steeping.
           
When you buy saffron, Spanish threads which have been stored airtight away from the light, have been cured properly and come from healthy plants are dry, deep red, unbroken and strongly aromatic.  It should immediately begin releasing an intense yellow-orange when strands are immersed in hot liquid, alcohol, vinegar, rose water or lemon juice.  If your saffron releases a blue or red dye, you are working with adulterated saffron.
 

Recipes:
Paella Valenciana
½ cup olive oil
2 chicken pieces
8 oz lean pork, cubed
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 green pepper, sliced
2 red peppers, sliced
8 oz chorizo sausage, sliced
8 oz peeled tomatoes
16 mussels scrubbed and bearded
salt and pepper to taste
1 lb long-grain rice
3 cups chicken stock
a pinch of saffron, infused in a cup of stock for 15 minutes
4 oz French green beans, cut in 1 in pieces
4 oz peas, shelled or frozen
8 large uncooked shrimp
8 cooked shrimp
           
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan. Brown the chicken pieces and pork.  Remove them and keep to one side. Sauté the onion, garlic and peppers and cook for about 10 minutes or until soft. Add the tomatoes and chorizo sausage and simmer for a few minutes before returning the chicken and pork pieces to the pan. Cook gently for about 15 minutes.  Add the mussels and simmer, covered, until the mussels open.  Add the rice, stirring into the mixture.  Add the infused saffron and the remaining stock..  Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes, adding the beans and peas after 10 minutes and the uncooked shrimp after 15 minutes.  At the end of the cooking time, turn off the heat, garnish with shrimp and leave, covered, for 3-4 minute before serving.
 

Saffron Martini
1/20 of a gram of saffron
Larios gin
Manzanilla sherry
           
Infuse the saffron in the gin for five minutes.  Add a drop of the sherry and shake with plenty of ice.  Substitute a single saffron filament for the usual olive (The Essential Saffron Companion)
 

Tea with Spices
½  tsp green tea
3 cardamom pods
1/ 2 stick cinnamon
small slice fresh ginger
pinch of saffron
1/ 2 tsp ground almonds
water for a 4 cup teapot.
           
Bring all the ingredients to the boil and simmer for 2 minutes.  Pour through a strainer.  (The Spices of Life)
 

 References:
The Complete Book of Herbs, Spices and Condiments
, Carol Ann Rinzler, Facts on File, 1990; ISBN: 0-8160-2008-6
Cooking with Spices
, Carolyn Heal & Michael Allsop, David & Charles, 1983; 0-7153-8369-8
Creative Cooking with Spices
, Jane Walker, Chartwell, 1985; ISBN: 1-55521-016-3
Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices
, Linda Fraser (editor); Anness Publishing, 1997; ISBN: 1-901289-06-0
The Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices & Flavorings
, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, Dorling Kinderseley, 1992; ISBN: 1-56458-065-2
The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants
, Andrew Chevallier, Dorling Kindersley, 1997; ISBN: 0-7894-1067-2
The Essential Saffron Companion
, John Humphries, 10 Speed Press, 1996; ISBN: 1-58008-024-3
Exotic Spices
, Rosamond Richardson, Salem House, 1985; ISBN: 0-88162-161-7
The Garden of Life
, Naveen Patnaik, Doubleday, 1993; ISBN: 0-385-42469-8
The Gourmet Garden
, Geraldene Holt, 1990; Bullfinch Press,  ISBN: 0-8212-1815-8
Green Pharmacy
, James A. Duke, Rodale, 1997; ISBN: 0-87596-316-1
The Herb & Spice Cookbook
, Sheryl & Mel London, Rodale, 1986; ISBN: 0-87857-641-X
The Herbal Epicure
, Carole Ottesen, Ballantine, 2001; ISBN: 0-345-43402-1
An Illustrated Dictionary of Chinese Medicinal Herbs
, Wee Yeow Chin & Hsuan Keng, 1992; CRCS Publications; ISBN: 0-916360-53-6
The Illustrated Herb Encyclopedia
, Kathi Keville, Mallard Press, 1991; ISBN: 0-7924-5307-7
The Macmillan Treasury of Spices & Natural Flavorings
, Jennifer Mulherin, Macmillan, 1988; ISBN: 0-02-587850-6
Magical Herbalism
, Scott Cunningham, Llewellyn, 1982; ISBN: 0-87542-120-2
Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Herbs and Spices
, Editor: Stanley Schuler, Fireside Books, 1990: ISBN: 0-671-73489-X
The Spices of Life
, Troth Wells, Second Story Press, 1996; ISBN: 0-929005-02-3
Wild About Saffron
, Ellen Szita, Saffron Rose, 1987,  

Resources:
C
ompanion Plants, 7247 No Coolville Ridge Rd., Athens, OH 45701; 740-592-4643; www.companionplants.com  corms 

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