Swanky Saffron By Ellary Allis
On a bus in Himachal Pradesh, India, riding from the hill station of Manali to Spiti Valley, a remote desert mountain valley high in the Himalayas, I procured a small, round spice jar filled with saffron. We were 13,054 feet above sea level, at a stand still on the Rohtang Pass, thwarted by one of the frequent traffic jams that now clog the ancient trade route. Vendors, prepared for the avalanches and vehicular breakdowns that transform the artery into a parking lot, assemble makeshift stalls along the pass, from which they sell chai, roasted corn, and wool socks to commuters and travelers with nothing to do but wait. Some vendors weave between the cars, buses, trucks, and motorcycles, peddling their wares more aggressively. I was leaning against an open window, drowsy and in dire need of a bathroom, when one teenage boy stuck his hand through the window, shoving a jar of Kashmir saffron right under my nose. The dry strands were a lovely burgundy color and smelled like a blend of hay and sweet pepper, but I wasn’t looking to add weight to the meticulously packed gear I carried with me and I was unimpressed by the high price he quoted me. Cold and irritated with his lack of sales that day, he dropped the jar in my lap and said I could have it for six US dollars. I acquiesced, handed over 330 rupee and found myself in possession of three ounces of the most expensive spice in the world. I didn’t know anything about saffron at the time-nothing about its health benefits, its cultural history, or the fact that the amount I’d gotten for six dollars could cost up to 400 dollars if I were to purchase it in the States.
The first time I experimentally added a few strands of my saffron to a chai I bought 3 hours later, still stuck in the same spot on the Rohtang Pass, I knew I’d received a gift I needed to learn about. I’ve heard that everyone experiences the taste of saffron differently, the discrepancy seemingly more dramatic than the usual variation of taste perception. Some say it tastes like the sea, salty and bitter. Some say it has a subtle honey flavor. Some say it tastes like gasoline, and I’ve heard its flavor compared to the taste of plastic. For me, saffron transformed my paper cup of chai into a goblet of ambrosia-the nectar of the Greek gods- or, dare I say, Soma-the beverage of immortality mentioned repeatedly in the Vedas. That’s how good it tasted in my chai. Seriously. Saffron, for me, has a semi-sweet, earthy flavor: a little tannic, and simultaneously floral and nutty.
My first question was: “Why is saffron so dad-burned expensive?” So, saffron (Crocus sativus), a genus in the family Iridaceae) is derived from the dried stigmas of the purple crocus flower (the stigma is generally in the center of the flower and serves as the receptacle for pollen). Because each crocus flower only produces three threads of saffron, and about 14,000 threads make up one ounce of saffron, up to 224,000 flowers are required to yield one pound. Moreover, because saffron is so delicate, it must be picked using the same technology that’s been employed to harvest it for millennia: the human hand. Fortunately, because the flavor of saffron is so strong, only a few threads are needed to flavor a dish or create a dye.
Human use of saffron dates back to at least 3,500 years and spans the globe, from the Fertile Crescent to India, from China to North America and Oceania. The first pictorial references to saffron are found in Bronze Age frescoes in the Knossos palace of Minoan Crete, and at Akrotiri, the Minoan settlement on the Greek island of Santorini. The most well known Hellenic saffron tale tells of Crocus and Similax. In the woods near Athens, the dashing young Crocus pursues the nymph Similax. Similax, initially flattered by the attention, eventually rebukes him. Undeterred, Crocus won’t let up, and so Similax transforms Crocus into a saffron crocus.
There is evidence of mass cultivation of saffron in Derbena, Isfahan, and Khorasan by the 10th century BCE, when Persian use of the flower as a dye, perfume, and medicine was widespread. Saffron threads have been discovered interwoven into ancient Persian royal carpets and funeral shrouds. By 500 BCE, cultivation of the saffron crocus corms had spread throughout the Persian Empire along the Silk Road routes. The first scientific reference to saffron appears in the 7th century BCE, when a team of botanists led by Ashurbanipal, the last of the great kinds of Assyria, detailed the use and benefits of saffron in a botanical reference inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets. In India, saffron was used to pigment the vermilion, ochre and saffron hued robes and mantles worn by Buddhist and Hindu monks.
Crocus sativus is a perennial herbaceous plant that flowers in the autumn. It’s a domesticated plant that does not grow in the wild, the result of extensive artificial selection of the Crocus cartwrightianus by cultivators desirous of flowers with especially long stigmas. Because this variety of saffron is sterile, it requires humans for reproduction, meaning corms (much like tulip bulbs) must be planted instead of seeds. If you want to cultivate Crocus sativus, plant the bulbs in the summer, between July and August, in a rich, well-draining, sandy soil mix. The plants require full sunlight and the site should be relatively dry in the summer, when the corms are dormant.
The medicinal benefits of saffron are manifold: it’s used for a range of cardiac ailments, it’s a carminative (suppressing cramps and flatulence), helps treat respiratory disorders, soothes colic, stems nosebleed, and relieves headaches, especially in menopausal women. In a series of controlled studies conducted in Iran in recent years, saffron has outperformed placebo in treating mild to moderate depression, with an antidepressant effect comparable to Prozac. In Ancient Egypt, physicians used a mixture of saffron seed, aager-tree remnants, ox fat, coriander and myrrh made into a poultice to treat internal hemorrhaging. Alexander the Great bathed in saffron to heal battle wounds, and Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, wrote of saffron’s use in curing coughs, insomnia, uterine bleeding, and digestive disorders. Saffron is mentioned in the Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, Ayurvedic treatises from approximately 500 BCE. In Ayurvedic medicine, saffron is recognized as a nourishing purifier that both cools and moves blood, breaking up blood clots and clearing liver stagnation, calming inflammation, and arthritis. Saffron is a diuretic and a cardiotonic that clears phlegm congestion, and is prescribed in Ayurveda to encourage breastmilk flow and to contract and restore the uterus after childbirth.
Saffron Chai Tea:
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 5 whole cloves
- 3 cardamom pods
- 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
- 4 cups milk of your choice
- 6 teaspoons loose black tea
- raw honey to taste
- 4 saffron thread
Combine spices, except for the saffron, in a saucepan. Lightly crush spices with a spoon. Add milk and saffron and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Add tea and let steep 5 minutes. Pour through sieve to strain out tea leaves and spices. Add honey to taste.