THE GOLDEN THREAD
A journey through the history of the world’s most expensive spice*
Saffron is among the world’s most costly and revered substances, with origins surrounded in fantasy and mystique—quite an achievement for a little plant that rises no more than twelve inches above the ground. Long associated with decadence and extravagance, saffron has often been a colourful means by which to flaunt one’s social standing. However, saffron’s expense is not just a testament to its unique colour and flavour, but to the labour required in its production.
Crocus sativus belongs to the Family Iridaceae, and thrives in semi-arid conditions with cool winters and the desirable hot and dry summer breezes. Global production is dominated by Iran; Spain also considered a high-quality producer. Sprouting just five to ten non-photosynthetic cataphylls , the plant is more flower than leaf. The blooms emanate a sweet honey fragrance and range in colour from light shades of lilac to a deep striated mauve. Each flower produces three vivid crimson stigmas , which are the part of the crocus that is dried to produce saffron. Together with its predilection for dry, arid heat and full sunlight, the saffron crocus grows best in well-drained soils, and the timing of wet seasons is crucial to determining yield. Planting depth and corm  spacing are also critical, and, since C. sativus is self-incompatible and requires human assistance to reproduce, it must be dug up, divided, and replanted annually. Add to that its susceptibility to plant diseases, such as leaf rusts and corm rot, and its appeal to nematodes, rodents, and birds, just getting the plant to survive at all is quite the challenge for any dedicated saffron farmer.
But this is before any of the real labour begins. Presuming the bulbs survive and grow into strong and healthy plants, each will produce no more than three flowers. These will bloom over consecutive mornings for just one week, so the saffron harvest takes place over a very short and very intense period. Being so delicate, each flower is picked by hand. They are gathered shortly after dawn, before the sun gets too hot. Nimble fingers will then work well into the night removing the precious stigmas, which must then be dried, for they have no flavour or aroma when wet. Traditionally the stigmas are dried on fine mesh screens placed over hot coals or in rooms heated by wood-fired ovens to between 30°C and 35°C. Drying takes up to twelve hours. One pound of saffron represents the sum produce of about 70,000 flowers and 200 hours of labour. The risks inherent in every step of production can naturally have devastating consequences for producers. In only their third year of farming, severe, once-in-a-century flooding almost wiped out the entire crop of Tas-Saff , one of Australia’s most successful saffron producers.
A brief history of saffron cultivation, use and trade
Because of its high value, saffron is also one of the most adulterated substances on Earth. As supply is measured by mass this typically involves mixing in extraneous substances such as marigold petals, pomegranate threads or red-dyed silk fibres. Poorer-quality threads are sometimes doused with honey, while powdered preparations are often cut with turmeric or paprika. During the fifteenth century saffron adulteration was taken so seriously that the Safranschou code was implemented, under which accused adulterers were fined, imprisoned or even burnt alive at the stake. Today’s regulations are slightly less dramatic, however an ISO International Standard (no. 3632) exists to deal exclusively with saffron, guiding market prices. Grading is performed by laboratory measurement of the compounds that define colour, taste and fragrance. For those wanting to avoid counterfeit transactions, it’s worth knowing that real saffron threads are fine and even in size, and have a thin yellow tendril at one end and a trumpet-like flute at the other.
These days saffron is primarily considered a culinary spice, where it is prized for its unique flavour and distinct aroma, but in earlier times it was valued for a number of other properties. Fragrance was key to its use as an ingredient in the embalming process, while those who could afford such an expensive commodity employed it liberally in personal perfumes and cosmetics. Both Cleopatra and the Roman emperor Heliogabalus are reputed to have bathed in saffron-scented water, not only to enhance beauty but as it was considered an aphrodisiac reputed to promote more pleasurable lovemaking. Many cultures wove precious saffron threads into textiles as a bold statement of social standing, while its use as a fabric dye was most prolific throughout India and China, where the most recognisable application was in the colouring of robes traditionally worn by Hindu and Buddhist monks. Uses of saffron as an herbal medicine are legion, where it was employed to treat anything from smallpox and cancer to coughs and flatulence. Medicinal use peaked with the advent of the Black Death, where demand was in fact so high that a fourteen-week-long Saffron War was sparked when a large Venetian shipment bound for Basel was hijacked and stolen by noblemen. While its use in mithridatium  and as a medicine in general has declined, saffron’s potential anti-carcinogenic, antioxidant and anti-depressant properties remain the subject of modern research investigations.
In food, the luxurious glow of saffron is synonymous with the colourful rice dishes of India, Italy and Spain. Its honied hay-like aroma adds depth to the exotic Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout, and its bitter grassy taste is essential to the famous Cornish saffron cake and French seafood soup bouillabaisse. But despite its expensive price tag, when it comes to using saffron it is most certainly a case of less is more, as too generous a hand will produce a dish that is unpleasantly soapy to the taste and visually reminiscent of iodine dressings. As the famous herbalist Nicholas Culpepper once wrote, “when the dose is too large it produces a heaviness in the head, a sleepiness; some have fallen into an immoderate convulsive laughter, which ended in death.” A noteworthy pitfall for any budding chef but if you had your choice of endings, a fine repast followed by fits of laughter is perhaps not such a bad way to go.
* This article was originally written for and published by Pinknantucket Press in: Materiality number 3: PRECIOUS (March 2014). Materiality is a themed journal focusing on the physical and material that includes fiction, essay, images and poetry. Click here for more information about this journal; or here to purchase a copy from their online shop.
- Cataphyll – a reduced or scarcely developed, non-photosynthetic leaf that occurs at the start of a plant’s life, or in the early stages of leaf development;
- Stigma (botany) – the receptive tip of the reproductive organ of flowering plants that receives pollen and enables the pollen grain to germinate;
- Corm – a short, vertical, swollen underground plant stem that serves as a storage organ;
- Tas-Saff Saffron Growers- www.tas-saff.com.au;
- Mithridatium – a semi-mythical remedy used as an antidote for poisoning created by Mythridates VI Eupator of Pontus in the first century BC.
- Hemphill, I. (2000) Spice notes: A cook’s compendium of herbs and spices. Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd, Sydney Australia.
- McGee, H. (2004) On food and cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen. Scribner, New York USA.
- Willard, P. (2002) Secrets of saffron: The vagabond life of the world’s most seductive spice. Beacon Press, Boston USA.
- The Crocusbank Project: www.crocusbank.org