The times which we live are filled with many beautiful things and one can hardly catch their breath before some new aromatic treasure has appeared on the horizon. Sometimes I think the plant world is sending us many special radiant and redolent benign treasures to remind us that always there are things to be grateful and thankful for each and every step of the way. In my own aromatic quest I feel like I am living in a constant state of amazement. Their are numbers of really wonderful distillers and extractors doing superb work. They may not have all the sophisticated equipment for analysis etc but what they are doing in their respective parts of the world is not less than a marvel and a real blessing for humankind. One has to stop and remember that each and every precious oils that comes into our hands is created by an intricate process of growing and nurturing plants, gathering them, distilling or extracting them correctly, etc. The more we can bring this into our awareness the more our appreciation will grow for the precious vials of exquisite essences that grace our lives. Today we will explore the world of saffron. I hope you will enjoy the tidbits of information offered herein.
Towards Pampore went my darling, Saffron flowers caught him in fragrant embrace
O, he is there; and ah me! I am here; When, where, O God, would I see his face?
A village girl may sing a conceit in sweet tones:
Proud of thyself art thou; O saffron flower
Far lovelier than thee am I; O saffron flower.
The vermillion color of saffron forms a prominent part of India culture as at least traditionally has been used to make special tilak marks on the forehead which have a rich symbolism of their own. And of course the delectable dishes of India often incorporate this wonderful and costly spice into their making. A few precious threads of Saffron can transform a nicely spiced dish into one of fine sublimity. One particular encounters it in special sweet dishes to which it imparts both color and fragrance.
In the area where I lived from 1971-1976, Mysore State which is now known as Karnatika, saffron played an important role in the making of special incense for the royality of that area. In the mid 1800's a new industry arose in the cities of Mysore and Bangalore where special blends of spices, herbs, roots, woods, etc were ground, made into a paste and rolled onto thin bamboo sticks for the enjoyment of the wealthier classes of Indian society. Prior to that time incense was not made in that way. It was generally a combination of raw aromatic ingredients ground and mixed together and then burned on hot charcoals. This was in fact the method employed for thousands of years in the great religious traditions of the East. Stick incense was a new and innovative idea that came to the mind of a member of a Muslim family of high standing and he and his heirs evolved this into a high art and craft which was recognized by the Kings and Queens of Mysore.
There position of the incense makers was so high and special both within their community and the society at large that they had immense respect and appreciation where ever they traveled. I have even seen old pictures of special ceremonies in the courts of the Mysore Palace where the most gifted incense blenders presented their treasures to the Kings and Queens. Amongst the many special formulas that came into existence at the time was the Kesar Chandan or Saffon/Sandalwood one. The odor of this incense somehow captures and elegance, beauty and romance of the royality of that wonderful state. Those who have visited the city of Mysore and visited the beautiful palace can well imagine the spell this fragrance casts upon the mind. From the far regions of Kashmir came the precious saffron spice and it was mixed with the finest aromatic gift of Mysore, pure sandalwood powder and oil. The combination of these precious ingredients is rich and wonderful containing the precious woods notes of the sacred tree with the sweet,spicy pungent notes of saffron. A wonderful and sacred aroma.
In recent years few perfumers have maintianed the tradition of making this special incense because it is so costly. But I felt that every effort should be made to keep this most precious aroma with us and commissioned one of India's finest incense makers to make the incense in the old way with strict instructions to use the finest sandalwood oil and heartwood and the best saffron. That incense has now come into being as the Vale of Kashmir.
This fragrance of Saffron was, of course prized long before this incense was created in South India. When Saffron was introduced into cultivation in Kashmir is hard to say but it is certain that it is a centuries old industry. The rich aroma of this spice was loved dearly by the people in the north as well and it was not long till the perfumers of Kannauj, the Grasse of the East became involved with making a special attar from it. Even today this regal attar is made on a very limited scale and this has recently been introduced into the line of traditonal attars offered by Suzanne and I. It is truly a lovely creation of the traditional perfumers art and craft. It is a lovely site to see the rich color of the saffron as moisture is added to it and it is kneaded into moist dough. This dough is place in a special cotton cloth sack and suspended just above where the warm steam passes from the distilling vessel into the bamboo pipe which carries it down into the sandalwood oil where the aroma is captured and fixed.
So this newsletter is a collection of bits and pieces about Saffron which I think you may enjoy. Like many other aromatic plants a whole book could be written on it(and in fact numberous books have been written on Saffron) so I have just tried to supply some interesting things which may not be found elsewhere.
The saffron (Crocus sativus L.) belongs to family Iridaceae. It is a perennial, low growing herb with globular corm ranging from 0.5 to 5.0 cm. in diameter. The corms produce 6 to 15 narrow, needle like channelled leaves about 10 cm. long; surrounded in the lower region by 4 to 5 scales. The flowers are borne singly or in 2 or 3. They are funnel shaped about 7 to 8 cm. long. The perianth is made up of six segments in two series, violet or reddish purple in colour. Androecium consists of three stamens attached to the throat of the perianth.Filaments are short but anthers long and yellow in colour. Pistil bears elongated pale yellow exerted filiform sytle, divided at the top into brilliant orange red, trified stigma, 25 to 30 mm. in length. The three stigmas along with style, when dried constitute the pure saffron of commence. The cultivated saffron is an autotriploid with very irregular meiosis. The plant is sterile with 2n=24 chromosomes. The trified stigma at the upper tip is 3 to 4 mm. thick, funnel like, lustrous deep red in colour, hairless and cureled
Saffron, as most European names for this spice,
ultimately derives from Arabic za'fran "be yellow".
The Hindi and Sanskrit names is derived from the
Northern Indian region Kashmir, where of old
saffron was produced. Under the name krókos, the
spice was known to the Greeks (as mentioned by
Homeros in the Ilias, see poppy), but the origin of
the name is pre-Greek and not clear. Maybe there is a
connection to Hebrew karkom, which is the spice's
name in the Old Testament (see also pomegranate).
Saffron in Kashmir
Imagine a vast plain of grey-brown earth, shaded here and there with willow and almond trees, surrounded by snow-capped mountains gently warmed by the late autumn sun. Then cover that plain with swaying purple flowers, each exuding the most lush and beguiling scent. Now people the fields with tens of thousands of villagers wearing homespun clothes, picking flowers at a furious pace, and heaping them into
wicker baskets. Their chatter and laughter rings through the clear air, old men smoke hubble-bubbles under the trees, and all you can do is marvel at a sight like no other anywhere in the world. These are the saffron fields outside the small town of Pampore in Kashmir, just about half an hour's drive from the summer capital, Srinagar. For most of the year, they're barren, as the bulbs of the crocus sativa germinate beneath the dry earth. But come late autumn, the fields turn purple.
Used plant part
Stigma, also called style (central part of a flower, female sexual organ).
150000 flowers are needed for one kilogram of dried saffron. Less
expensive qualities include also the yellow stamina (male sexual organ),
which do not have any taste of their own.
For Coloring and Flavor
Most saffron is used as a spice in cooking. Spanish and French cuisine favour the use of saffron, for example in paella, arroz con pollo and bouillabaisse. It is often used in chicken and fish dishes. However, saffron finds its way into the cuisine of many European and Asiancountries, especially in festive fare. Special Christmas bread and buns using saffron are traditional in Sweden. Saffron cakes are another speciality in parts of England. Since saffron is extremely expensive, less costly substitutes such as turmeric are often used to give a yellow colour to foods such as rice dishes, but of course, the distinctive saffron flavour is lost.
Saffron used to be used as a dye to give a bright yellow colour. However, this use has now been superseded by the use of synthetics because of the high price of saffron. An alcoholic tincture of saffron is sometimes used as a fragrance ingredient, particularly in oriental-typefragrances. The spice is also used in some types of incense.
In the essential oil (max. 1%), several terpene aldehyds are found (e.g., safranal, 2,2,4-trimethyl-cyclohexa-1,3-diene carbaldehyd, 50%), furthermore terpenes (pinene, cineol). Picrocrocin, a glucosid of a safranal-related alcohol (4-hydroxy-2,2,4-trimethyl-cyclohex-1-ene-carbaldehyd), is responsible for the bitter taste. The intensive colour of saffron is caused by carotenoids, especially crocetine esters (crocetine is a dicarboxylic acid with a carotenoid-like C-18 backbone) with gentobiose. Other carotenoids from saffron include alpha- and beta-carotene, lycopin and zeaxanthin.
A Little History of Saffron
How saffron came to Kashmir
Prayers during the saffron season are offered at a golden-domed shrine in Pampore, the joint tomb of Khwaja Masood Wali, and Hazrat Sheikh Shariffudin. These two wandering Sufi holy men apparently arrived in Kashmir about 800 years ago, carrying flower bulbs from Asia Minor. After a local chieftain cured one of them who was ill, he was given a bulb in payment. And thus, according to legend, did the saffron crocus come to Kashmir.
But Kashmir's more secular historians beg to differ. Mohammed Yusuf Teng, a poet and expert on the ancient culture of this land, told me the indigenous people of Kashmir grew saffron more than 2,000 years ago, a fact that's mentioned in the epics written during the era of Tantric Hindu kings. When Kalhana wrote his Rajataringini or chronicle of Kings in the eleventh century, one of the crops he mentions is saffron. In fact, after Kashmir became a part of the Mughal Empire, Emperor Jehangir remarked on how the blooming saffron fields in Pampore caused him to feel drowsy. Still later, pure saffron became synonymous with purity -- perhaps because of its high cost. Kashmiri Hindus would wear caste marks on their foreheads made of saffron soaked in water or milk. Among the Muslim community even today, the religious text contained in the taveez (religious amulet), is sometimes written in saffron mixed with water instead of ink.
History of Saffron in Greece
It was not defined well when saffron cultivation began, but it is believed that this might have happened during Prehistoric Greek times. The excavations in Knossos, Crete, brought to light some frescoes where saffron is depicted. The most famous of these frescoes is the "saffron gatherer", where it was depicted that there was a monkey amongst the yellow saffron flowers. Etymologically, the word crocus has its origin from the Greek word "croci" which means the weft, thread used for weaving on a loom.
Mythologically, according to Ovidius, the plant took its name from the youth Crocus, who after witnessing in despair the death of fair Smilax was transformed into this flower. Known since antiquity, saffron it was one of the most desired and expensive spices of ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans for its aroma, color and aphrodisiac properties. It was quite popular among the Phoenician traders, who carried it wherever they traveled.
In Ancient Medicine (Information is provided for cultural interest, not as a recommendation for treatment of disease)
The ancient Assyrians used saffron for medical purposes. Hippocrates and other Greek doctors of his time, like Dioskourides and Galinos mention crocus as a drug or a therapeutical herb. From the writings of Homer who calls dawn, "crocus veil", Aeschylus, Pindaros, and others, we know that the crocus was considered a rare pharmaceutical plant of ancient Greece with unique properties. It is referred throughout ancient history and in the course of many medical writings of the classical Greek and Roman times all the way to the Middle Ages. Another saffron use in ancient Greece was that of perfumery. The history of red saffron in modern Greece starts in the 17th century when traders from Kozani, Macedonia, brought the red saffron from Austria. For 300 years, Greek red saffron is systematically cultivated under the warmth of the Greek sun, in the rich soil of a unique area including many small towns of Kozani in West Macedonia.http://greekproducts.com/greekproducts/saffron/history.html
Saffron in Early Modern Sweden
On the thirteenth of December, the Swedish people celebrate the festival of St. Lucia. How this Sicilian saint, generally uncelebrated in her own land, became such a major figure in early modern Swedish culture is a surprisingly simple tale. Lucia Day developed in Sweden as the Reformation moved northwards, and the worship of Saints became less tolerated. Of all the Saints, however, the traditions surrounding St. Nicholas’s day proved impossible to do without. The Swedes wished to continue the celebratory food and gift-giving traditions surrounding the darkest nights of winter, part of ancient rites requesting the sun to return to the Northern land. Over time, Swedes transferred the gift-giving traditions from the 6th of December (St. Nicholas’ day) to Christmas, but the beseeching of the light’s return began the day before the Christmas fast — December 13th, Lucia’s day. They connected Lucia’s name with lux, and the holiday was born.
In the various texts that discuss the Lucia holiday, such as Jan-Öjvind Swahn’s book, Maypoles, Crayfish and Lucia, the authors mention, but seem unsurprised by, one peculiar detail of the Lucia Day festivities. The cakes the women make in the early morning of the day (and later serve to the father in bed) are flavored with saffron. Saffron cannot grow in Sweden, but the writers on Swedish festivals suggest that this spice has long been present in Lucia Day buns. While the holiday did not develop until the early 18th century, the traditional holiday food in Sweden has long antecedents into the late Middle Ages, and it seems reasonable that the saffron flavored buns were part of these traditions. How did saffron arrive in Sweden? Could the Swedes produce it themselves? Did they have it imported via Russia from India? How expensive was it? Could only the richest Swedes use this spice? The history of the saffron trade differs from many other spices because it could be grown all over Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and further to the East. At the same time, despite the relative ease of cultivating, the difficulties surrounding the harvesting ensures that the European demand for saffron could not be filled. The spice remained expensive, but available. It seems entirely reasonable that once a year many Swedes might have had a pinch of saffron to add a golden hue to their Lucia Day buns. 1
Saffron, named from the Arabic za’fran, comes from the stamens of the Crocus Sativus. This flower grows wild in many places, from Italy to Kurdistan, having been spread by eastern winds across Asia Minor into the Mediterranean. The Greeks claimed that the first cultivated saffron (cultivating the crocus meant breeding it for elongated stamens, producing more of the spice and making it slightly easier to harvest), came from Asia Minor, and rapidly spread across the ancient world. The rewards for growing saffron were great, as were the difficulties. It takes, even today, one hundred thousand flowers to produce one kilo of dried spice, all of which has to be hand picked! Despite these costs, many cultures adopted saffron as an important dietary and medical substance, even if most people could use it only rarely. Ancient Greeks demonstrated the infinite wealth of the gods by describing Zeus having a bed of saffron. Knossos on Crete has frescoes of a man gathering saffron. The Egyptians cultivated vast fields of it to mix with honey, and Romans sought saffron as a curative and aphrodisiac. Wealthy Romans sprinkled their marriage beds with saffron. In the Middle Ages, saffron traveled across North Africa, along with Islam, into Spain. Medieval Spain quickly became the center of saffron production. Not only was saffron used as a medieval flavoring, but scholars as notable as Roger Bacon claimed that saffron would defray the effects of aging and add to the joy in one’s life. Later, as the Middle Ages continued, both France and England began to produce saffron, where their climates were satisfactory. Provence and Essex, at various times, rivaled the Spanish production.
People grew saffron all over Western Europe, but the astronomically high labor costs of harvesting it and the low yield per plant kept the supply well below the demand, and yet the supply was sufficient that many people could obtain small quantities of the spice for special occasions. These occasions included the Christmas celebrations of Provence, and St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden. Saffron’s existence as a defining ingredient in a fairly old and widely practiced Swedish holiday is not the product of a long and complicated trade route via the Mongols or the Vikings and Poland or Russia. Nor was saffron a tremendously rare luxury that merchants laboriously brought from India to the Middle East, and from there by Italian merchants. Rather, the Swedish are likely to have used French or Italian saffron as they could obtain it, and, given the amount grown, some saffron would have been available each year. The long-distance saffron trade developed because it was too hard to harvest for any one region to satisfy the demand, and so there was vast profit available for a merchant who carried the spice quite literally worth its weight in gold.
--from Saffron in Early Modern Sweden by David Perry
Saffron in Spirituality
Among the sanskrit words to describe saffron colour is 'bhagva'. The description of 'bhagva' could have been derived from the word 'bhagvan' (meaning god),
or from 'bhagya' the sanskrit for good fortune. Either way it says the same thing - auspicious and good!
When Buddha gave up his mortal body, he was covered with a special robe dyed in saffron. Ever since then, Buddhist monks have adopted saffron as the colour that can help them achieve their goal of 'moksha' or deliverance.
Saffron is omnipresent in all the religions that have branched out from Hinduism. You see saffron in the garb of monks living on alms. It is the colour of the religious standard that flutters over Sikh gurudwaras and Hindu temples. For the Sikhs it represents fight against injustice, and for Hindus a religious fundamentalism. Saffron paste is used to annoint virtually all deities of the Hindu pantheon. The worshipper, in a mark of piety, also dots his/her own forehead with a small portion of saffron paste. This 'tilak' mark or 'bindu' is ubiquitous in India. Of course much of the use of this 'bindu' is purely ceremony or cosmetic, but in concept, the red mark has its genesis in very profound tantric thought.
This precious spice brings piety and power to religious practice. Certain practices for the awakening of the kundalini, require saffron as one of the essentials in performing the rituals. The colour of saffron also plays a major role in the ' yantra', a graphic that symbolically represents aspects of tantric philosophy. The yantra is a 'centring device' for meditation practice, in which form and colour work like a visual tool.
Saffron in Ceremony
Witness a traditional Indian celebration - a wedding ceremony. The marquee, marigold flowers and other decor are vibrant with the auspicious red-gold colour of saffron. The wedding guests are welcomed at the entrance in a small ceremony called 'aarati'. A gently flaming oil lamp held on a silver tray is circled in the air in front of the guests , and a dot of saffron powder and rice grains pressed on the foreheads. Fragrant saffron sherbet is offered. The feast is sumptuous. The rice pullav is a golden colour, fragrant with saffron. There is a multitude of sweet dishes, and each of them, raj bhog, kesar laddu, kheer are redolent with the queen of spices. The spicy tea served later again has that unmistakable musky scent and flavour...When you see the bride's face half hidden behind her veil, her face has a beautiful glow, some natural, some created by the gold of saffron paste.
Saffron is present at raksha bandhan and bhai dooj, and a score of other festivals rooted in society and tradition. Gold (gold is called 'suvarna' - 'su' for good and 'varna' for colour) is an auspicious metal, displayed on ceremonial occasions. Similarly, saffron is golden, precious and good! The presence of saffron blesses the event and makes it special. It is possible that Indian culture took cues from the ancient Greeks and the Romans where pomp and ceremony demanded that saffron perfume be strewn inhalls and courts. When Nero strode into Rome, the streets were drenched with saffron!