A powerful myth is attached to saffron, which throughout human history has been accorded near miraculous healing properties.
Historically it has been thought effective against asthma, chicken pox, scarlet fever, gout, disorder oft eh eye, insomnia, heart disease, flatulence, respiratory diseases, dysentery, and the common cold – though the most common role in popular medicine is a carminative, a remedy for gas. By association with its bright yellow red colour, saffron was thought to be beneficial against yellowing of the skin in cases of hepatitis. Modern science tended to validate many of these beliefs.
Researchers determined that saffron is specialty effective against digestive disorders, asthma and bronchitis, and may be even an effective anti-carcinogen.
Centuries ago spices were very expensive and only the wealthiest citizens could afford to consume them.
Venetian spice traders amassed untold fortunes in importing and distributing spices from Far Eastern countries.
Europeans realised that exotic spices originated in another “world” far away, offered new unexpected, thrilling, and welcome taste dimensions.
Spices were exotic, as well as a sign of wealth and sophistication. Ultimately, this led to voyages of discovery by courageous captains financed by wealthy merchants and/or royalty.
Today, planet earth has shrunk and little surprises us, yet saffron still captures the imagination of all gourmets.
It is the most expensive spice around and sold by the gram. The price ranges per gram from $ 2.00 to $ 4.00 pending on its provenance, packaging and the location of the retailer.
A pinch of saffron transforms a dish – the colour changes to a reddish-yellow and the taste takes on vibrancy no other spice can cerate. Its smell is unmistakable – combination of hay and honey, and the taste – somewhat bitter, and metallic).
Saffron is the prime spice of French bouillabaisse, Spanish paella, risotto alla Milanese, biryanis, and blanc mange.
Saffron consists of the stigmas of a small purple flower (crocus). It must be harvested by hand (October). The fields of crocus are in Iran, Spain, India, Italy, Switzerland, New Zealand, California, Afghanistan, and Turkey.
Stigmas of each flower, are individually picked early morning and in the afternoon. They must be dried (in the sun or over embers), during which 80 per cent of the weight evaporates.
It is said that one gram of saffron consists of 150 – 200 stigmas. Considering the labour, the price seems reasonable.
Humans have been using saffron for millennia. The first documentation historians found (in Greece) to date dates back to 1500 B.C.
In antiquity people believed saffron to be a medication for kidney diseases and to stimulate appetite. Reportedly, Alexander the Great, the Macedonian general who advanced his army as far east as Afghanistan, put saffron in his bathwater to cure his wounds. On the other hand, Cleopatra believed saffron-infused bathwater would enhance her desirability and sexual prowess.
An expensive ingredient like saffron has encourages fraudsters to adulterate it and in the 15th century Germany codes had to promulgated and declared to put an end to such deceit.
Some restaurants cheat by using turmeric to flavour their rice-based dishes in an attempt to cut cost.
Saffron releases its flavour slowly. In order to obtain best results, crush, and then soak in warm water for at least 20 minutes before use.
Do not buy ground saffron it might have been adulterated.
The best comes from Kashmir in India, Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, and most from Iran, repackaged in Spain and marketed as Spanish product.
Next time you cook risotto (use carnaroli or vialone nano rice) put a pinch of saffron, and you will see the great difference it makes.