Saffron is the only spice obtained from the stigmas of a flower, Crocus sativus.
A little history
This crocus is a perennial bulb, sterile with autumnal bloom. It is not found in the wild. It needed man to propagate through the regions during the centuries. The use of saffron goes back to more than 5000 years. It is present in several societies, continents and civilizations over time. We do not always agree on its origin. Research shows that it comes from Crete and not from the Middle East as it was believed for years. Ancient Greek frescoes attest to the cultivation of saffron around 1600 BC. During ancient Egypt, Cleopatra created the first eau de toilette named “kyphi”, made of saffron. According to the texts of the time, she never went out without coating herself with her elixir. Chen Nong, a Chinese emperor, mentions saffron for its medicinal properties in a collection dated 2700 BC.
The uses of saffron
It is difficult to describe the taste of saffron. Depending on the person, it is attributed to bitter notes, honey, flowers and even a slightly metallic taste. Saffron has been used as a seasoning, dye, perfume and medicine over the years.
It has long been part of the pharmacopoeia of many peoples to treat a range of ailments: (mood disorders, cramps, asthma, menstrual disorders, liver disease, insomnia). Saffron would have been used to cure smallpox and the bubonic plague. Today, some benefits are attributed to it, such as: an antidepressant action, an improvement of some cognitive disorders, a protection of the retina cells and the cardiovascular system. Nowadays, several clinical trials are trying to demonstrate the potential of saffron as an antioxidant and anticancer agent. Saffron is composed of more than 150 elements, it is rich in magnesium, manganese, iron, beta carotene and vitamins B6, B9 and C.
Saffron has been used to color textiles and other objects. Its fabrics were reserved for the ecclesiastical world and the monarchy.
The cultivation of saffron
Saffron is the pistil of the flower which is composed of 3 stigmas. It is an inverted culture. Contrary to the other crocus, its purple flower is born in October. The period of dormancy occurs during the summer.
Its vegetative multiplication is done in spring from its bulb which stores reserves throughout the cold season. The plant can tolerate harsh winters without any problem. In Quebec the snow cover will serve as insulation.
Its need for water in spring is replaced by snow. With climate change, snow is sometimes insufficient. It will be necessary to water if the spring rains are not there. Rather dry summers will be ideal for its dormancy.
The bulb of saffron prefers friable clay-limestone soils which drain well and with a good quantity of organic matter. Like the other crocuses, it can adapt to slightly acid soils. Raised beds are suggested to promote good drainage. The flowers will arrive 6 to 8 weeks after the bulbs are planted.
Towards the end of summer, when the days get shorter and the nights cooler, the bulb starts its cycle for flowering. Leaves will appear around September 21, the beginning of autumn.
The high price of saffron is explained by the time necessary for the harvest and the transformation. These steps cannot be mechanized or automated. Everything is done by hand. It takes an average of 170 flowers to make one gram of dry saffron. Saffron, the “red gold”, is considered the most expensive spice in the world. Any cheap saffron is suspect, there is something fishy about it. Never buy saffron powder. American saffron is not saffron but the safflower flower which gives the yellow color without expressing any taste.
The main saffron producing countries are Iran, India, Greece, Afghanistan, Morocco, Spain. And now Quebec…
The quality of “red gold” in Quebec
There is 3 times more saffron on the planet than is produced, so it is important to buy your saffron from a known saffron producer. Saffron is classified according to its quality. We evaluate in the laboratory three elements based on the international standard ISO 3632.
The concentration of crocine (color), picrocrocine (taste) and safranal (fragrance) are the three elements tested to categorize the product’s class. Laval University in Quebec City can analyze saffron according to the ISO standard. Emporium Safran Quebec has always had class 1 saffron. Quebec saffron is of very high quality. Let’s encourage saffron from here.
In the French republican revolutionary calendar used from 1792 to 1808, September 23 was called “saffron”. This would be the most common date for the appearance of the first saffron flowers and it is my birthday. So it’s natural for me!