A Brief History of Saffron

June 17, 2020

A Brief History of Saffron

What’s in the Article:
• Saffron in an age of Stone and Bronze – Art, Medicine, and legend
• Medieval to Renaissance – The foundations of a food phenomenon
• Modern history of Saffron – 20th century saffron trade
• Ancient & traditional uses - (homeopathic remedies, historical suppositions etc.)
Reading time: Approximately 5 minutes.

Saffron in an Age of Stone & Bronze – Art, Medicine, and Legend

It’s impossible to date the first common use of Saffron with any absolute authority, however evidence of the artistic, cultural and economic impact of the flower and threads within can be found throughout ancient history. We can infer the familiarity and prevalence of saffron in ancient cultures through archaeological discoveries such as handcrafts and parietal art (cave paintings, for example).

The oldest discovered use of saffron hails from stone-age Iraq, nearly 50,000 years past, where the paint used to create cave art was found to have a saffron based pigment. The rich-golden colors produced with the saffron threads became archaeologically apparent & likely enjoyed patronage in the primitive cradles of civilization.

Beginning the journey onward towards today, saffron makes an important stop in the bronze age, inspiring art and artisan in Minoan, Greco-Roman, and Egyptian spheres of influence. The first depictions of saffron used for medicinal purposes, can be found in Minoan paintings, where saffron appears to be applied topically or with poultice to aid in wound healing. Much later in the Bronze age both the Egyptians and Greeks espoused the flower as a gastrointestinal cure-all.

In lore, the ancient Greeks “do their thing” and have several legends using saffron as a plot device, that can send sailors on an adventure to find the grandest saffron fields, or introduce fantastic creatures to bewitch & vex mortals in ancient allegorical dramas.

The Bronze age spans nearly 1,500 years depending on geography. This was a heyday in the use diversification of saffron.

Saffron Fields

Medieval to Renaissance – The Foundations of a Food Phenomenon

French cultivation started in earnest near the 13th century, and the availability would begin to push on local desires, then by extension, demand. Coupled with the onset of Bubonic plague demand continued to skyrocket. Common belief elevated saffron as a highly valued ally in the fight against plague. Things normalized in 14th century Europe and saffron came into its own; being first popularized in cooking media and distributed via archaic forms of print.


Mercantile ambitions, piracy, guarded jealousy and intrigue highlight this era, with the raw commerce value of saffron being commonly understood by royalty and rogues alike. Naturally, piracy is a less than safe endeavor and instead, creative business criminals heavily introduced the idea of adulterated saffron, or fakes, simply put. These could be outright replacements sold to the ill-educated, or more crafty cuts of saffron and other lookalike ingredients.


“Saffron economics” had an ebb and flow up until the industrial revolution, with demand and production flourishing particularly in the Mediterranean. Conversely, in England demand began to wane and production came to a near standstill due to the availability of new luxury import goods, and various sociological influences.
During this time Saffron was imported to the Americas, bringing a new-world chapter into the spicy saga & closing out the story of Saffron before the industrial, cultural, and combat revolutions of the 19th century.

Modern History of Saffron – 20th Century Saffron Trade

With the expansion of the new world, and Saffron production retreating to small sized farming enclaves, saffron cultivation is now chiefly completed in Iran. It’s theorized that this has re-awoken the mystique behind saffron. It’s not something most consumers can walk outside and see, touch or taste. It comes from a land of turbulent history, epic legends, and dominant empires, collapse & rebirth. There now exists a demand for the spice and its set of applications that capture the imagination of “foodies”, chefs and even scientists, the world-wide.


Once an item of high value trade, saffron has translated into a high priced good in more recent, modern history. The price of Saffron remains high and lends credibility to its legend of luxury. Saffron farming is one of the very few industries where it remains impractical to use modern farming techniques to increase production capacity. This ancient spice is still farmed, weighed and packaged by hand which greatly contributes to its costly nature.


“Since so many crocus flowers are needed to yield even derisory quantities of dry saffron, the harvest can be a frenetic affair entailing about forty hours of intense labor. In Kashmir, the thousands of growers must work continuously in relays over the span of one or two weeks throughout both day and night.” (Source: Kashmiris Pin Hopes on Saffron", BBC News - Lak, 1998)

Saffron Harvest

 

Ancient & Traditional & Modern Uses - Homeopathic Propositions & Historic Superstitions

It’s very clear and nearly irrefutable that saffron has had an impact on ancient medical treatments; from witch doctors to authors and philosophers, this spice seems to capture the imagination and invite an amount of confidence... belief, even, in its power to heal, bolster, or improve the human physiology. Over the millennia, ninety various uses were recorded for the saffron spice. Here’s a short list using generalized eras, consisting of uses in historical fact, legend and supposition.

Saffron Cooking Table




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