Saffron flower. The long red style, which is divided into three threads, and the shorter, yellow stamina.

Saffron, is the most precious and most expensive spice in the world. The Saffron filaments, or threads, are actually the dried stigmas of the saffron flower, "Crocus Sativus Linneaus". Each flower contains only three stigmas. These threads must be picked from each flower by hand, and more than 75,000 of these flowers are needed to produce just one pound of Saffron filaments, making it the world's most precious spice.

But, because of saffron's strong coloring power and intense flavor, it can be used sparingly. Saffron is used both for its bright orange-yellow color and for its strong, intense flavor and aroma. "Crocus Sativus Linneaus" contains crocin, the source of its strong coloring property, bitter-crocin, which offers the distinctive aroma and taste and essential oils, which are responsible for its therapeutic properties.

Saffron is available both in filaments and powder, though the long, deep red filaments are usually preferable to the powder as the latter can be easily adulterated. Today, the greatest saffron producing countries are Greece, Spain, Turkey, Iran, India, and Morocco. The largest saffron importers are Germany, Italy, U.S.A., Switzerland, U.K., and France.

It was not defined well when saffron cultivation began, but it is believed that this might have happened during Prehistoric Greek times. The excavations in Knossos, Crete, and Akrotiri in the island of Santorini brought to light some frescoes where saffron is depicted.The most famous of these frescoes is the ‘saffron gatherer’, where it was depicted that there was a monkey amongst the yellow saffron flowers. Etymologically, the word crocus has its origin from the Greek word “croci” which means the weft, thread used for weaving on a loom. Mythologically, according to Ovidius, the plant took its name from the youth Crocus, who after witnessing in despair the death of fair Smilax was transformed into this flower.

Known since antiquity, saffron it was one of the most desired and expensive spices of ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans for its aroma, color and aphrodisiac properties. It was quite popular among the Phoenician traders, who carried it wherever they travelled. The ancient Assyrians used saffron for medical purposes.

Hippocrates and other Greek doctors of his time, like Dioskourides and Galinos mention crocus as a drug or a therapeutical herb. From the writings of Homer who calls dawn, “crocus veil”, Aeschylus, Pindaros, and others, we know that the crocus was considered a rare pharmaceutical plant of ancient Greece with unique properties. It is referred throughout ancient history and in the course of many medical writings of the classical Greek and Roman times all the way to the Middle Ages. Another saffron use in ancient Greece was that of perfumery.

Thus the word ‘krokos’ as an aromatic and flower is found in the Book of Proverbs and in Song of Solomon 3 in the Old Testament. It is also found denoting the flower or pigment in Homer (Hymn 178 to Demeter mentions the ‘Krokesian’ flower), Sophocles, Theophrastes, Aristophanes, Hippocrates, etc. The saffron crocus as an plant with distinctive properties (pigment, medicine, herb, seasoning) was known both in Ancient Greece and to other ancient peoples. It is claimed that it was grown in Greece during the Middle Minoan period. This view is supported by a wall-painting of the period (1600 BC) called the ‘Saffron Gatherer’ found in the Palace of Knossos on Crete showing a youth, a girl or, according to others, a monkey gathering crocus flowers into a basket. It is also claimed that the Greek grew saffron crocuses in both Macedonian and Byzantine times and that it spread to the East with the campaign of Alexander the Great.

The saffron crocus is a corm-rooted plant of the iris (Iridaceae) family. The corm is 2 to 3 cm in diameter, spherical and fleshy with brown-grey reticulate integuments. Each corm produces one to three erect conoid flowers in October/November. After several hours these open losing their first shape. They consist of :

- six dark blue-mauve petals, length 4 to 5 cm, width about 1 cm,

- three yellow stamens

- the style, which divides into three stigmas,

- and the ovary, which is hairy, narrow and contains many round brown seeds.

The stigmas are a lustrous to orange colour, length 40 to 50 mm together with part of the style. Their top end is serrated and under their weight they incline downwards, often outside the conoid. The saffron crocus is grown for the orange red stigma of the flower and secondarily for the three yellow stamens. Its uses are many and various: in pharmacy, baking, cookery, cheese-making, pasta production, the drinks industry and artists’ paint.

In Medicine
As a therapeutical plant, saffron it is considered an excellent stomach ailment and an antispasmodic, helps digestion and increases appetite. It is also relieves renal colic, reduces stomachaches and relieves tension. During the last years it was used as a drug for flu-like infections, depression, hypatomegaly and as a sedative for its essential oils. It is also considered that in small quantities it regulates women’s menstruation, and helps conception. It is a fact that even since antiquity, crocus was attributed to have aphrodisiac properties. Many writers along with Greek mythology sources associate crocus with fertility. Crocus in general is an excellent stimulant.

In Dyeing
The basic ingredient of crocus is crocin, the source of its strong coloring property. In antiquity it was a very rare and expensive substance and the color it produced and signified a high status or royalty. Romans used it to dye their hair and the “purple carpet” of saffron of Irish kings was such impressive examples.

The golden-coloured, water-soluble fabric dye was distilled from saffron stigmas in India since ancient times. Shortly after Buddha died, his priests made saffron the official colour for their robes.

The dye has been used for royal garments in several cultures to indicate high status in society. There are many instances of saffron robes being worn as a symbol of wealth and power.

In Cooking
As a spice it is used for colouring and flavor improving while giving a distinct aroma and a beautiful golden color. There is a great list of foods where saffron is added including cheese products such as cottage cheese and parmesan, soups, chicken and meat, various spirits, pasta and rice. To use saffron, either infuse a few threads in a cup of hot water and add the coloured liquid towards the end of cooking, or crumble the threads and add directly to the pot.

Alternatively, dry roast, crumble and then steep the crumbled threads. Unlike other spices, a good pinch will suffice to add flavor and color most dishes.