Saffron is a spice obtained from the stigmas of the true saffron flower (Crocus sativus L.), a plant of the Iridaceae family.

Origins and History –
The etymology of the word Saffron comes from the Arabic Za’feràn or “sahafaran” in Persian, passing through the Latin “safranum”. The root is the Persian term “asfar” which means “yellow”.
The saffron plant which is counted among the most expensive spices in the world, is native to Greece or Asia Minor but cultivated for the first time in Greece. As a genetically monomorphic clone, it spread slowly throughout most of Eurasia and was later introduced to areas of North Africa, North America and Oceania.
True saffron, whose wild species is unknown, probably descends from the Crocus cartwrightianus, originally from the island of Crete; Crocus thomasii and Crocus pallasii are other possible precursors.
In fact, the disagreement between the various writers who are interested in its origin is still great: but it is now established that Saffron has come to us from Asia Minor where it was grown extensively in Cilicia, Barbaria, and Stria. Scano, in fact, writes that the Sidons and the Styrians used them to color the veils for brides yellow and that priests and sacrificers used to gird their heads with Saffron flowers during propitiatory rites and in religious ceremonies.
From Asia, the crocus culture spread to Tunisia, Greece and almost all of northern Africa, where it created a large export trade.
In the seventh century the Arabs introduced it to Europe through Spain where, today, the cultivation of saffron is still widely practiced; although some believe that it was the Phoenicians who brought it to Spain at that time enjoyed a sort of monopoly in trade. The Spanish name Azafràn derives, in fact, from the Arabic one Al Zafaran, still in use in the Iberian peninsula and in the Hispanic-American Republics, while in the rest of the world the Persian name Zaafran is still used, more or less modified.
However, if C. sativus is a mutated form of C. cartwrightianus, it could have developed as a species, preferred for long stigmas, from a plant selection on the island of Crete of the late Bronze Age.
The aroma of saffron and the smell similar to hay and iodoform are due to the picrocrocin and safranal molecules.
Its documented history of saffron begins with an Assyrian botanical treatise from the 7th century BC. compiled under the reign of Sardanapalo and for over four millennia it has been traded and used. In the Middle Ages, it was the only spice traded in the West of indigenous origin. Iranian saffron production currently accounts for 90% of world production.
Saffron has been known and used since ancient times. We find traces of it in the Bible, where our crocus sativus is one of the most precious aromatic plants found in the garden of the Canitic Canticle. It is depicted in the palace of Knossos and mentioned by the Egyptians in the Ebers Papyrus.
As said, the saffron plant has been known since ancient times; Virgil, Pliny and other chroniclers of classicism often cite it in their works and Ovid, the Latin poet of Sulmona [43 BC] in Metamorphosis even mentions it at the origins of the Fables, when he speaks of the love of Croco and Smilace who were both transformed , from Nubi, in the flower that took its name from the first.
Cited by Homer in the Iliad, Saffron served as a bed for Zeus, while ancient writers narrate that the Romans dissolved it in wine to spray it in theaters, bonfires, thalami and hair. It is also said that the Romans themselves used its flowers to cover the streets at the passage of the princes and emperors and legend has it that Isocrates, before going to bed, used to scent the pillows of his bed with Saffron.
The Greeks have two mythological legends to explain the origin of the saffron flower: the young Crocus was transformed into a flower by the gods, to punish him for love for the beautiful nymph Smilace. Or maybe it was mercury that hit his friend Croco by mistake and to remember him he decided to dye the flower of the red of his blood. The crocus is also one of the flowers of Zeus’ cloud bed, as Homer recounts in the Iliad.
In ancient Rome, on the other hand, saffron was used in cosmetics, in painting and as a coloring agent for clothing due to the characteristic yellow color it releases thanks to the crocin. The organoleptic qualities have always been appreciated in the kitchen, in the Middle Ages spices had a very high value and were a symbol of wealth and refinement and saffron in particular has always been among the most precious aromatic.
Despite the interest of agronomists, the year of introduction of saffron culture in Italy has never been precise in this regard.
Certainly it is known that saffron had a return to cultivation in Italy in the Middle Ages, during the first half of the 1200s, where it was brought by the monks, in particular by the inquisitor Domenico Santucci, Abbruzzese friar of Navelli, in the province of L’Aquila. From here it began to spread, in particular in Sicily, Sardinia, Umbria, Tuscany and Abruzzo, areas where saffron cultivation is still widespread today.
The passion for the small saffron plant, which has already been widely cultivated in Spain for some time, led Santucci to carefully study all the cultivation needs and the typicality of the land where it could best germinate.
In fact, not long after, on the occasion of a license granted to him, as it seems, for health reasons, he transported clandestinely, despite the very strict laws of the time provided for prison or even death for those who tried to get Saffron out of the Spanish borders , a quantity of crocus bulbs in Navelli to be able to experiment with their cultivation. With the knowledge acquired in Spain, the Dominican Father worked hard and in every way to cultivate it, confident of obtaining happy results. His hope was not in vain as the land and microclimate of the L’Aquila area responded very well to the cultivation of the precious crocus. So much so that the Abruzzo product was far superior to the Spanish one and the current evaluation by great scholars, who consider the Eagle’s Saffron to be the best in the world, still confirms it.
Rapidly, from Navelli, the cultivation of Saffron successfully spread throughout the territory of L’Aquila and the notable families of the time, managing to trade over 20,000 pounds per year of Saffron. Later the culture of the Crocus Sativus spread also in the fertile valley of Sulmona where it made the name of Crocus Sulmonensis.
In 1890, in the Aquila area, Saffron was grown in twenty-four Municipalities with a lot of industriousness and profit. At the end of the nineteenth century, on a total of 500 hectares of land cultivated with saffron, the quantity of the crop touched almost four and a half tons, but in the years following the cultivation of the Crocus Aquilano it went less and less and in these decades, unfortunately , has reduced to an almost insignificant cultivation.
Several times this phenomenon has attracted the attention of illustrious writers and journalists who have tried to identify the causes but in this regard only an infinite number of hypotheses have been written, without ever reaching anything concrete that concerned the complex causes of the decline of the culture of saffron in Abruzzo.
Undoubtedly the lack of manpower, caused by an intense emigration in the agricultural field, was the determining aspect and most affected by the culture of Saffron from L’Aquila.
Furthermore, the antagonism of the foreign product and inadequate trade were the further causes of the decline of Abruzzo cultivation which should never have feared competition from other producing countries, always distinguishing itself for the renamed quality of its product which it found in Abruzzo favorable climate and terrain.
Today, 70-80 kg of Saffron are produced in the Aquila area thanks to the workers of the land who, with tenacious effort, derive a highly sought-after product from the crop.
Today saffron is also rediscovered in Lombardy, thanks to the Brianza zafferaneti.
Speaking of Lombardy, work was underway in Milan towards the end of the 1300s to build the Duomo. Such a Valerio of Flanders, a Belgian master glassmaker, commissioned for the realization of some windows, had brought to Milan the best of his disciples together with a young man of strong skill, nicknamed “Saffron” for the custom to add a pinch of Saffron the prepared mix of colors, so that they are brighter.
During the continuation of the work, the Maestro continually repeated to mock him that sooner or later he would end up putting saffron into rice too. The young man, after years of teasing, on the day of the celebrations arranged for the wedding of the Maestro’s daughter, decided to devise a joke and with the complicity of the cook, coloring the risotto prepared for the wedding dinner with the yellow powder. At the sight of the flow, the Master’s amazement was great but in order not to fall into ridicule, he immediately came forward to savor the unusual yellow rice. One after the other, all the diners followed suit and in the blink of an eye they consumed the eccentric course entirely and in good taste.
In “Saffron” the mockery did not do very well, but unknowingly gave birth to one of the most extraordinary Italian gastronomic recipes “.
In any case, during the events experienced or told in history, Saffron has had the most varied uses; in the beginning it was used only as a dye to dye the silks destined for the upper classes or to paint; in fact, during the Renaissance, the use of mixing it with the powders of the frescoes to give colors a particular luminance spread, especially in Italy, but was later used for a wide variety of uses. As a medicinal substance, the old saffroners affirmed that it was a calming agent like opium and an exciting agent like wine, but it was also recommended as a light analgesic, through gingival friction, for the pains of teething and in moderate doses as an appetite stimulant; in addition, it was also used as a spasms reliever and in cosmetics for the production of powders, creams and oils for the skin. Today Saffron continues to be used in the cosmetic industry for the creation of natural products.
When saffron became part of the domestic economy, it became a useful and pleasant ingredient for food and drinks by adapting its bright golden color and its exceptional fragrance, to sweets, pastas, cheeses and rice from which one of the most famous Italian recipes: the “Saffron Risotto”.
In any case, for centuries the Crocus Sativus has been appreciated in the kitchen and has always been considered precious, so much so as to be a symbol of wealth.

Description –
Saffron is a spice that comes from a herbaceous species, namely the Crocus Sativus which blooms in autumn. In the corolla of the flower there are three stigmas which are red or orange in color and it is from these that saffron is obtained.
The plant, which is never higher than 25 cm, is rigorously picked by hand. Once the flowers have been collected, the stigmas that must subsequently be dried are delicately detached.
A kilo of spice takes about one hundred and twenty thousand flowers. For this reason saffron pistils cost at least 12,000 euros per kilo. Depending on the varieties of bulbs and climates, the flowers are harvested between October and November.
Once the stigmas have been detached from the flower, these must be placed in a sieve for drying, which occurs through an always moderate heat source. It is at this point that saffron in pistils and saffron in powder are born, to be used in first courses, in sauces, in ragu, in vegetable side dishes, in a tasty soup, with cheeses and even in desserts.

Active principles –
The aroma of saffron and a smell similar to hay and iodoform and are due to the picrocrocin and safranal molecules. It also contains a carotenoid pigment, the crocin, which gives the dishes and fabrics a golden-yellow hue
Saffron contains more than 150 volatile and aromatic compounds and also has various non-volatile active compounds, many of which are carotenoids, among which we mention zeaxanthin, lycopene and α- and β-carotene. The golden yellow-orange color of saffron, however, is mainly due to the α-crocin, the trans-crocetin and di- (β-D-gentiobiosyl) ester, having the IUPAC name: 8,8-diapo-8 acid , 8-carotenic. This means that the crocin at the base of the saffron aroma is a digiobiotic ester of the crocetine carotenoid. The crocins themselves are a series of hydrophilic carotenoids, polyethylene esters of crocetin or monoglycosyl or diglycosyl. Crocetin is a conjugated polyene dicarboxylic acid that is fat soluble, being hydrophobic. When crocetin is esterified with two gentobiose molecules, a water-soluble sugar, the product is also water-soluble. The resulting α-crocin is a carotenoid pigment that can make up more than 10% of the mass of dry saffron. The two esterified gentobiosis make the α-crocin ideal for coloring water-based and non-lipid dishes, such as rice dishes.
In addition, bitter glucoside picrocrocin is responsible for the taste of saffron. Picrocrocin (chemical formula: C16H26O7; IUPAC name: 4- (β-D-glucopyranosyloxy) -2,6,6- trimethylcyclohex-1-ene-1-carboxaldehyde) is the union of an aldehyde subunit known as safranal (name systematic: 2,6,6-trimethylcyclohexa-1,3-diene-1-carboxialdehyde) with a carbohydrate. It has insecticidal and pesticide properties and can make up to 4% of dry saffron. Picrocrocin is a truncated version of the carotenoid zeaxanthin produced through oxidative cleavage and it is also the glyphoside of the safranal terpene aldehyde.
When the saffron is dried after harvesting, the heat and the enzymatic action divide the picrocrocin into D-glucose and a free safranal molecule. Safranale, a volatile oil, gives saffron much of its characteristic aroma; it is less bitter than picrocrocin and in some assays it can make up to 70% of the volatile fraction of dry saffron. Another determining element for the aroma of saffron is 2-hydroxy-4,4,6-trimethyl-2,5-cyclohexadien-1-one, which when dried like hay, produces a perfume described as that of saffron. Chemists believe that this has the strongest influence in determining the scent of saffron, despite its quantitatively less presence than safranal. Dry saffron is very sensitive to pH fluctuations and its chemical bonds quickly break in the presence of light and oxidizing agents. For this reason, it must be kept in airtight containers, to minimize contact with atmospheric oxygen.
From the point of view of the chemical composition, saffron is rich in vitamins that activate the metabolism and is therefore digestive. It therefore contains many vitamins (A, B1, B2 and C) and minerals (in particular phosphorus, calcium, sodium, iron, potassium, magnesium and manganese) and above all, as mentioned, it has a very high concentration of carotenoids such as zeaxanthin and lycopene.
For its carotenes content (8%, 1000 times that of carrot) it is one of the most powerful natural antioxidants. Saffron therefore fights free radicals, responsible for cellular aging.
Saffron stigmas is composed of approximately 65% ​​carbohydrates, 12% water, 9% protein, 5.8% fat, 5% ash, 4% fiber. It is a caloric food (it contains about 310 calories per 100 grams) but this is a figure of little interest since it takes a minimum dose.
Saffron is however rather heat resistant.

Properties and Uses –
Since ancient times, beneficial properties have been attributed to saffron, according to Hippocrates it was excellent against rheumatism and has always been attributed to it among other aphrodisiac, anti-tumor, anti-depressant properties.
Saffron is not all of the same quality and intensity. The intensity depends on various factors, including the amount of stylus collected together with the red stigma and the age of the saffron itself. The greater presence of stylus in the collected part means a lower intensity per gram of saffron, since the color and perfume are concentrated in the stigmas. Saffron from Spain, Iran and Kashmir is classified into classes based on the relative quantities of red stigmas and yellow styles. The classes of Iranian saffron are: “sargol” (only the tips of the red stigmas, the class with the highest intensity), “pushal” or “pushali” (red stigmas plus some yellow styles, lower intensity), “bunch” ( red stigmas plus a greater amount of yellow styles, presented in small bunches as miniature bundles of wheat) and “konge” (only yellow styles, for which it is claimed to have an aroma, but with little coloring potential). The classes of Spanish saffron are: “coupé” (the most intense, like the Iranian “sargol”), “mancha” (like the Iranian “pushal”), and, in order of decreasing intensity, “rio”, “standard” and “sierra”. The name “mancha” in the Spanish classification can have two meanings: a generic class of saffron or a variety of very high quality cultivated in Spain, with a specific geographical origin. The real La Mancha saffron grown in Spain has the DOP product recognition, indicated on the label. Spanish growers have struggled a lot to achieve this status since they realized that imports of Iranian saffron relabelled in Spain and sold as La Mancha saffron were damaging the original brand.
Nations that produce smaller quantities of saffron do not have specific terms for the different classes and can only produce one. In contrast, artisanal producers in Europe and New Zealand have most of the work in the collection of saffron aimed at high quality, offering only an extremely high-class product.
In addition to the descriptions based on the collection method, saffron can be categorized according to the international standard ISO 3632, after laboratory measurements of the content in crocin (responsible for the typical color), picrocrocin (responsible for taste) and safranal (responsible for aroma). Often, however, on the product label there is no clear information about the class and only a small part of the saffron for sale ready in the United Kingdom is labeled with the ISO category. This lack of information makes it difficult for buyers to make informed choices when comparing prices and buying saffron.
According to the ISO 3632 standard, the determination of the content that does not come from the stigmas (“content in floral waste”) and other foreign substances such as inorganic materials (the “ashes” of analytical chemistry, residual after the combustion of a sample) is also decisive. . Classification standards are established by the International Organization for Standardization, a federation of national standardization organizations. ISO 3632 only concerns saffron and sets three categories: III (of lower quality), II and I (of higher quality). Previously there was also a category IV, below III. The samples are assigned to the various categories by evaluating the content of crocin and picrocrocin in the spice, revealed by the measurement of specific absorbance for the analysis by spectrophotometry. The safranale is treated slightly differently, since the measurements are not distinguished on the basis of threshold values, but the samples of each category must return a value between 20 and 50.
The absorbance value of the crocin is called the “coloring strength” of the saffron examined and can vary from a minimum of less than 80 (typical of category IV) to a maximum of 200 and more (for category I). The best samples (consisting of the tips of the stigmas, mostly red-brown, selected from the finest flowers) provide the examination with a coloring strength greater than 250, making a saffron of this level four times more intense than a category IV . The market prices of the different varieties depend on these ISO categories. The sargol and the coupe generally fall into category I of ISO 3632, the pushal and the mancha into II. On many of the saffron packaging labels, neither the ISO 3632 category nor the coloring strength (which measures the cross content) are indicated.
However, many growers, traders and consumers reject the results of these laboratory tests. Some people prefer a more holistic method, sampling lots of pistils based on taste, aroma, flexibility and other characteristics in a manner similar to that practiced by professional wine tasters. However, the information on ISO 3632 classes and coloring strength allow consumers to make instant comparisons between the quality of different brands, without the need to buy and test saffron. In particular, consumers can calculate the economic value based on the price per unit of coloring strength instead of based on the price per gram, given the wide range of coloring strength that the different types of saffron can have.
Despite attempts to control quality and standardization, a long history of saffron adulteration, particularly in the cheaper varieties, still continues in modern times. Sophistications were documented for the first time in Europe in the Middle Ages, when those who were found to sell adulterated saffron were executed according to the Safranschou code. Typical methods include mixing in different substances such as beetroot, pomegranate fiber, red dyed silk fiber, and yellow crocus stamens, without flavor and without smell. Another method is to wet the saffron fibers with viscous substances such as honey or vegetable oils to increase their weight. The saffron powder is however easier to adulterate, with turmeric, paprika and other powders used as fillers to lengthen the mixture. The sophistication can also consist in the sale of mixtures of different classes of saffron labeled in a fallacious way. In India, in fact, Kashmir high intensity saffron is often come and mixed with a cheaper imported Iranian saffron, a phenomenon that has cost Kashmir farmers many of their earnings.
In any case, the different saffron cultivars give rise to types of pistils often distributed regionally and characteristically distinct. The Spanish varieties (not in the botanical sense), including the trade names “Superiore Superiore” and “Creme”, generally have a sweeter color, flavor and aroma and are classified according to standards established by the government. The Italian varieties are slightly stronger than the Spanish ones, although the most intense are generally the Iranian ones. Several small crops come from New Zealand, France, Switzerland, England, the United States and other countries. In the USA, Pennsylvania Dutch saffron, known for its “land” notes, is traded in small quantities.
The largest cultivation of saffron in Italy, however, is located in San Gavino Monreale, in Sardinia, where 40 hectares grow, which represent 60% of the national production; even the Sardinian one has an unusually high content in crocina, picrocrocina and safranale. Another type is the “Mongra” or “Lacha” saffron from Kashmir (Crocus sativus ‘Cashmirianus’), among the most difficult to find on the market for consumers; repeated drought, rust and shortages in harvests in the Indian area of ​​Kashmir together with the Indian export ban contribute to reaching prohibitive prices. Kashmir saffron is recognizable by its garnet-purple color and is among the darkest in the world, with strong flavor, aroma and coloring effect.
In addition to the relevant uses in the kitchen, saffron has other positive properties:
– As an antidepressant. Saffron has positive effects on mood, in particular due to the swings due to premenstrual syndrome, this because saffranal and crocin increase neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.
– As a digestive. The scent of saffron increases the production of gastric juices, while the pigments contained in it are rapid activators of the digestive system. B vitamins accelerate the metabolism by promoting the disposal of fats. In this sense, try the saffron herbal tea, which is obtained simply by making an infusion with the stigmas.
– As an antioxidant. Thanks to the high content of carotenoids, which are among other things easily assimilated because water-soluble (crocine) saffron is an excellent resource against free radicals, responsible for cellular aging.
But beware of contraindications: like all things that don’t need to take too much saffron; the doses not recommended, however, are really high. The lethal dose for humans is 20 grams (corresponding to 160 sachets), it is advisable not to take more than 1.5 grams per day, but it would be absurd to eat 10 saffron sachets alone.

Preparations –
Pure saffron in pistils should be kept in a dark, cool and dry place. It does not go bad but it is recommended to consume it within 2 years from the date of collection to preserve the aroma and nutritional qualities of the spice.
Also pay attention to the humidity which can ruin saffron irreversibly.
If you store the stigmas in an airtight container, such as a glass jar with a screw cap, better than the cork in keeping the humidity away, saffron can be kept for up to three or four years. Being a dried spice it hardly goes bad and is a very long-term product but over the years it gradually loses its flavor and nutritional qualities.
Over time, saffron matures and develops a bittering effect due to the effect of pyrocrocin, aging slightly increases the bitter taste. In general, the best aroma is achieved two or three months after drying and is maintained for at least a year. Saffron is harvested once a year between October and November and is ready for sale by December.
Many use saffron powder more often because they believe it is easier to use than pistil. This is probably true, but with some foresight it is easy to obtain great results even with this type of saffron which releases a very intense aroma.
In order to use pistils in recipes, it is necessary first of all to find them in a bowl filled with hot water. The soaking time must not be less than 40 minutes and in addition to water, you can also use milk, cream or vegetable broth. Do not overdo the amount of liquid, about 40 ml (one cup) is enough, paying attention also to the temperature of the infusion which must not be excessive. Letting the saffron pistils recover in water means allowing its aroma and intense color to release.
Once this time has passed, the saffron in pistils joins the dish together with its infusion liquid giving the food its characteristic delicious and pungent flavor.
The pistils of a quality saffron must have an intense aroma and must be subtle and uniform, both in size and color, which must be intense red. One end must be curled and orange in color, the other must have a trumpet shape. If the curled end were yellow, it would be a lower quality saffron.
Always remember that the important taste of saffron can be controlled by correctly balancing the quantities. You will always be in time to add more, but if you exceed, the result could be a dish with a bitter aftertaste.
As mentioned, saffron is also used in powder form and it is often possible to find on the market, in addition to sachets of pure saffron, also saffron, which is less valuable and is cut with turmeric or safflower.
Saffron powder has a milder flavor than pistils and the right amount to use if you prepare a lunch for about 8 people is ¼ teaspoon. There are many recipes that use saffron powder, starting with first courses such as speck and saffron pasta up to main courses such as saffron chicken breast, quick to prepare and really delicious, baked arancini, pizza, fish and much more.

Guido Bissanti

Warning: The information shown is not medical advice and may not be accurate. The contents are for illustrative purposes only and do not replace medical advice.

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