The valuable spice saffron originated in ancient Greece and was prized throughout the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and parts of Asia for flavoring, coloring, perfume, medicinal purposes and other uses. Today most saffron is produced in Iran and Spain.
Saffron is a spice originating from the dried stigma of the Saffron Crocus flower. Because there are so few stigma in each of these flowers, and because it must be cultivated by hand, saffron is more costly than most spices.
Saffron use is considered to have originated in Crete, Greece, although it also was native to southeast Asia. Ancient documents from China and India also mention saffron as a spice, a tea and a medicinal aid. Evidence shows that it was used in ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq) as well.
Images of saffron occur in Grecian frescoes all the way back to the Bronze Age, around 3,000 B.C. Ancient Greek legends tell of sailors traveling long and hazardous journeys to purchase the very best saffron. People used it for spice, perfumes, room deodorizers, ointments, aphrodisiacs, and medicine for gastrointestinal disorders and kidney problems. It was one of the most valuable commodities of the ancient world, used by Egyptians and Romans, and was traded throughout the region by the Phoenicians. The Egyptian queen Cleopatra and Alexander the Great both used it for baths---Cleopatra probably for cosmetic and seductive purposes, and Alexander for battle wounds.
Saffron is mentioned in the Bible, in Song of Solomon 4:14: "Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices."
Saffron most often is called for in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Asian recipes, to turn rice yellow and to add flavor and coloring to dishes such as risotto and paella. It also finds a continuing use in alternative medicines, particularly in Ayurveda, and is said to provide relief for headaches, arthritis, asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Nowadays, saffron is produced across the Mediterranean and the Middle East from Spain to India. Iran is the largest producer, and Spain is the largest exporter. Greece, Turkey, China, Italy, and France also cultivate saffron.
There is continuing debate about whether the highest-quality saffron comes from Iran or from Spain, but general consensus seems to give the nod to Princesa de Minaya saffron from Spain's La Mancha region, which can run as high as $80 per quarter ounce.
Fraudulent sales of saffron have occurred regularly throughout history, and the spice was mentioned by the ancient Roman author Pliny as being the most frequently counterfeited commodity. Saffron is sometimes mixed with dried calendula (marigold), or turmeric, and passed off to consumers as pure saffron. Buyers must be vigilant to be certain the product they are buying is indeed saffron, with no ingredients added to lower the manufacturer's cost.
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