Saffron has a complex flavor, variously described as bitter, sweet, and grassy. It is a known ingredient in several modern amaros.
The stamens of the saffron crocus are harvested to produce their famously expensive namesake spice. Amy Stewart describes the harvesting process The Drunken Botanist:
Each [Crocus sativus] corm produces just one purple flower during a two-week period in the fall. That flower opens to reveal the precious three-part red stigma we know as threads of saffron. It takes four thousand flowers to gather just an ounce of saffron.1
Saffron is used as an ingredient in many amari, including Amaro di Santa Maria al Monte, the recipe of which builds on the work of the Franciscan monks who lived near Florence in the Santa Maria monastary.2 It is rumored that the popular amaro Fernet Branca contains significant quantities of saffron, but given its relative affordable price point this is more likely myth than fact.3
Saffron is thought to have originated in Iran,4 and may have been cultivated for as long as 3,500 years.5 Saffron has had medicinal applications since the time of the Egyptians, as evidenced in its inclusion the Papyrus Ebers, a 22-yard papyrus scroll (translated into English circa 1500) held to be one of the missing books of Hermes Trismegistus, the mythical “Father of Alchemy.”6
As with so many herbs and plants, it was believed to do a little bit of everything and was also recommended for diseases such as pestilence, smallpox and measles.7
Marta Isabel González Blanco’s gloss on the Antidotarium Nicolai notes that “(f)or those with a feeble stomach saffron binds it and it can also purge the bladder,” among other things.8 In Medicinal Plants and Their History, Edith Grey Wheelwright cites saffron as being used for nervous disorders, as a sedative, and as an anti-spasmodic.9 Culpepper notes that saffron was used for several things, including quickening the brain, as a guard against fainting fits, and to aid in digestion, but cautions that some users “have fallen into immoderate convulsive laughter which ended in death.”10 Perhaps relatedly, saffron has been used as a flavoring in beer and spirits for centuries.11
Saffron grows best in average soil with some grit, and requires good drainage. It enjoys full sun to part shade, and has medium water requirements. It performs best in areas with long, dry summers.
Saffron plants are sterile and triploid — they never produce seeds. They are able to reproduce by splitting their corms, and as such are very reliant on human cultivation.12
Saffron is susceptible to rodents and other small animals digging up and eating their corms.13
- Stewart, Amy. The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks (Kindle edition). Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2013 (loc. 3269).
- Parsons, Brad Thomas. Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas (Kindle edition). New York: Ten Speed Press, 2016 (loc. 854).
- Stewart, op. cit. (loc. 3269).
- Ghorbani, Reza, and Koocheki, Alireza. “Sustainable Cultivation of Saffron in Iran,” in Lichtfouse, Eric (ed.), Sustainable Agriculture Reviews 25. Springer, 2017 (p. 170).
- Amy Stewart claims that the saffron crocus has been in continuous production since 1,500 BCE (Stewart, op. cit. loc. 3266), while Reza Ghorbani and Alireza Koocheki trace its origin to the Zargos Mountains of Iran circa 500 BCE (Ghorbani and Koocheki, op. cit. p. 170).
- Wheelwright, Edith Grey. Medicinal Plants and Their History. New York: Dover, 1974 (p. 81 – 62).
- González Blanco, Marta Isabel. “An edition of the Middle English translation of the Antidotarium Nicolai.” MPhil thesis, University of Glasgow, 2018 (p. 124).
- Ibid. (p. 124).
- Wheelwright, op. cit. (p. 64).
- Culpepper, Nicholas. Culpepper’s Color Herbal. David Potterton, ed. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 1983 (p. 160).
- Stewart, op. cit. (loc. 3266).
- Missouri Botanical Garden, “Crocus sativus.” Accessed August 14, 2019.
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