In the year 1358, the bustling market city of Nuremberg, Germany enacted a law solely to govern the inspection and quality of one particular spice. Offenders were executed in various horrific ways and were sometimes buried with bags of their impure product stuffed in their mouths. What spice was it?
If you said saffron, you are correct!
In the middle ages, Nuremberg was a hub situated at the crossroads of the major trade routes that brought goods into central Europe from the Mediterranean. Regulations were passed in an effort to instill some integrity and order into the lawlessness of the market at the time. Adulterated saffron was such a big problem that one of the first laws passed was the so-called “Safronschau Code.” At the time saffron was more sought after than gold, so it must have been quite tempting to tip the scale by adding a few marigold petals or pomegranate fibers here and there. Still, it does seem somewhat Draconian for counterfeiters to be drawn and quartered or burned alive in a bonfire fueled by their own substandard saffron. These corporal punishments were eventually replaced with steep fines, but the code was still strictly observed until 1797.
Saffron is not a leaf, ground root, or seed, unique among spices, it consists solely of the dried, thread-like stigmas of a flower — the purple Crocus sativus. Each flower yields only three tiny stigmas (the stamens have no value), and must be carefully harvested by hand and air dried. This highly labor-intensive process is a contributing factor to its high price. Unlike many other spices which have lost their cachet since the Middle Ages, saffron is still highly valued and can fetch up to $2,500 a pound. But then an acre of flowers–80,000 of them–are needed to produce that pound.
The name saffron is probably derived by way of Latin and the Old French, from the Persian “za’ feran.” Saffron was used ritually and as a medicine, a fragrance and a dye throughout the ancient world, from the Mediterranean to the Far East. Documentation exists showing that Sumerians, Ancient Greeks, and Romans made use of saffron to treat over 90 illnesses. Current studies showing that saffron has mutation-prevention qualities and shows promise in treating early onset macular degeneration and other eye diseases. It’s being touted as a weight loss aid and a mood-booster that functions similarly to Prozac. References to its use in cooking are first found in Old Persia and date back thousands of years. Saffron continues to be used in Indian, Persian, European, Arab, and Turkish cuisines. Saffron has been cultivated for over 3,000 years, but its wild ancestor was known much earlier — there are traces of saffron-based pigments in 50,000 year old cave paintings found in present day Iran.
The subtle taste that saffron imparts to food has been described as hay-like with slight metallic notes. Some varieties may have more floral notes and all imbue a beautiful yellowy-orange color to the foods it is added to. It pairs particularly well with seafood, chicken, and rice or couscous dishes, but is also used in sweet pastries and desserts. Commercially, saffron is used to color many processed foods like cheese and pastries and to color and flavor liquors like the French Chartreuse and the Italian Strega.
Unless it’s being added in the early stages of cooking with sufficient liquid, saffron needs to be steeped in hot water, broth, or alcohol to release its essence and help disperse its pigment. It’s best to let saffron soak for at least two hours to reconstitute, but if you’re in a hurry you can let the saffron soak for twenty minutes and crush to a paste with the back of a metal spoon (wood absorbs too much of the flavor) before adding to food
Saffron is available in threads (the dried stigmas) or powdered — the whole form is considered superior. It’s very sensitive to light and moisture. Stored in a clean, dry tin it will keep for several years.
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