Saffron, from the crocus, Crocus sativa, is the most expensive spice in the world, and probably always has been. This is because it is still hand-picked, and each crocus flower produces only 3 stigmas. These have to be dried and allowed to ferment a little before saffron is produced. It is labour-intensive, and it takes 14,000 stigmas to make 1 ounce of saffron spice, which sells at $50 for a quarter of an ounce. This being said, you only need a couple of saffron threads in a dish, so for $10 you can make one dish. Its best to buy it if you holiday in Greece, where it is cultivated, as it’s cheaper there.
The crocus is native to southwest Asia, the wild crocus known as Crocus cartwrightianus, and Crocus sativa was bred from this by choosing croci with unusually large stigmas to cross-pollinate. It is believed that this species may have started in Bronze Age Crete. It was found depicted on frescoes at Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans, and also at Akrotiri and on Thera or Santorini.
The first text which mentions saffron was an Assyrian one, written at the behest of Ashurbinapal. Much later Herodotus and Pliny both recommend saffron from Assyria, and Babylon, believing it the best to treat gastric ailments. Long before, however, the ancient cave artists used saffron based pigments to paint the walls of caves in Iraq. These have been dated and are believed to be around 50,000 years old.
It was used as a dye, and the saffron coloured robes of Buddhist monks are traditionally dyed with saffron, because it was a colour so beloved of Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. It has been cultivated in Kashmir for centuries, although there are conflicting stories regarding how long, as historians believe it was introduced from Persia and first harvested in Kashmir in 500BC.However there is a story that it was introduced in the 11th or 12th century Ad by two Sufi saints who gave a local chieftain a crocus bulb in return for his having cured them of their illness. Whatever the case, there is a shrine to these two Sufis in the town of Pampore, India, to Khwaja Massood Wali and Hazrat Sheikh Shariffudin.
The Romans and Greeks both used saffron to mask smells of the hoi polloi when attending theatres, and other public entertainments. The Greeks associated with high class prostitutes, and it was thought to be an aphrodisiac. Cleopatra made use of it in her baths. It was cultivated in Gaul, where it was taken by the Romans until the fall of Rome in 271 AD.
It returned to Europe with the Moors who reintroduced it to the Iberian Peninsula, southern Italy and parts of France.
In the years between 1347 and 1350 the Black Death ravaged Europe, and saffron was much in demand, as it was believed to be effective against the plague. Unfortunately trade in saffron was interrupted by the Crusades. The Greek island of Rhodes, where saffron was cultivated became a major supplier of the expensive spice.
The Greek myth about the crocus flower is perhaps worth mentioning here. Crocus, a handsome youth, fell in love with the nymph Smilax, and they enjoyed a brief affair. However, Smilax tired of her lover, and left him. He pursued her, and she grew tired of this and turned him into a crocus flower. Ovid tells the story much better in his ‘Metamorphoses’.
The market town of Saffron Walden in Essex got its name from the fact that it began to cultivate saffron in the 16th and 17th centuries. Up until that time it had been called Chipping Walden, and had prospered due to the wool trade.
If you buy saffron, don’t buy the powdered form as this will probably have been adulterated with turmeric. Buy the saffron threads. It’s good to flavour rice dishes such as biryanis, paellas and can be added to soups and sauces. One or two threads is sufficient.
Below is a recipe for fish soup, but you can work out the quantities for your needs, and use any white fish with any of the other ingredients. What is important is the stock.
2/3 litres water
250 gr onions whole and stuck at top and bottom with 2 cloves each
250 gr carrots peeled and quartered
12 black peppercorns
3 sprigs thyme
small bunch parsley
3 bay leaves
1 tsp coriander seeds
trimmings of all fish and shells of shellfish used
Fish and seafood
1 kg sea bass (head, bones and skin in stock)
1kg John Dory (head, bones skin in stock
1 kg coley
250 gr prawns (shells in stock)
1 small octopus, Beak removed and discarded, then cut into 2 inch pieces
500 gr squid, backbone removed and used in stock, cut squid into pieces
1 lobster flesh removed from shell, and shell used in stock
3 glasses white wine
1 glass brandy
2 threads saffron
freshly ground black pepper
First clean all the fish and seafood so you have the trimmings for the base of the soup. Put all the ingredients into a large pan and bring to the boil. You can tie the herbs together in a bunch if you want to. Remove any scum, cover and simmer for 2 hours. Check every so often and remove any further scum. If you think it’s really necessary to add more water, do so.
Next strain the liquid and put al the other ingredients into a large pan. Bring to the boil and simmer for a further1½ hours.
And your delicious, but expensive fish soup is ready to serve.
This has lots of Taste and is certainly a Treat.