ingredients magazine
saffron history
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saffron history

Saffron is something that many home cooks may have heard about, but few have actually ever used for cooking. That is, no doubt, thanks mostly to its notoriously high price. In fact, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice by weight, having been historically called the “golden spice.” This golden spice comes from the red-orange stigmas of a purple crocus flower, and each flower only produces three of them. The stigmas have to be carefully harvested by hand, and it takes anywhere from 13,000 to 14,000 of them of them to equal an ounce.

Cultivation of the flower for its stigmas has been recorded for more than 3,000 years. In Greek mythology, the unfortunate mortal Crocus fell in love with a nymph named Smilax and was turned into the pretty purple flower when his advances were rebuked. Kings and pharaohs used the golden-red stigmas as an aphrodisiac, and supposedly the Roman ruler Nero ordered the streets of Rome to be covered with saffron for his official entrance into the city as its Emperor.

The crocus sativus is grown mainly in the Mediterranean, but its direct ancestor is native to West Asia and the Middle East. Iran produces the most saffron, but Spain is the largest exporter. Bred specifically to have longer stigmas over many, many years, crocus sativus was created from crocus cartwrightianus. Each stigma is roughly one inch long on average. These perennial crocus flowers bloom in autumn and grow out of corms—underground blubs used to store starch that resemble an onion or garlic clove, that have to be dug up, broken apart and replanted in order to keep the crop alive.
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