Saffron is without a doubt one of the world’s most historically significant and desired substances. The importance that Saffron holds to Persian cuisine cannot be overstated. This unique, crimson spice has enjoyed a special place in Persian art, trade, and medicine, forging an inseparable bond to Persian (and, indeed, world) culture. To truly understand saffron’s significance, one must have a rudimentary understanding of its history and cultivation.
To begin with, saffron is quite ancient. Cave paintings found in Iran dating back to as much as 50,000 years ago have been found to be made with saffron based pigments. Saffron was cultivated, used as a dye and woven into expensive materials, before it was a staple of a Middle Eastern restaurant’s spice rack.
Saffron was ascribed numerous beneficial effects that ranged from medicinal to cosmetic; including a cure for melancholy, a perfume, and a powerful aphrodisiac. Even Alexander the Great was taken in by the spice; Alexander would bathe in warm saffron soaked waters as a method of healing his wounds after battles. The influence from Alexander’s armies brought saffron to Macedonia and Greece, and pretty soon saffron became a powerful trade tool and mark of luxury
The difficulty in harvesting saffron is considerable, making saffron farming something of a rarity and driving up its price. The spice, saffron, is the dried and ground threads, or stigma, from the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) perennial. The deep red stigmas are plucked from the flowers of the plant, one at a time, by hand.
The care and time that saffron takes to harvest is one of the major reasons that the spice is so revered. 150 saffron blossoms typically will yield just 1 g of dried saffron threads. For a ballpark figure, 1 oz of saffron costs roughly $100 from a commercial distributer. There are over 28 grams in just one ounce, meaning you would need over 4,200 flowers to cultivate just an ounce of saffron!
The unique bitterness and rarity of saffron has made it the most desirable and expensive spice in the world. Persian cuisine, having utilized Saffron since ancient times, is the best style to really get a taste for what saffron has offered generations of people. Especially when served over rice, with a little sumac and a good olive oil, Persian culture and history is defined through the crimson spice.
The next time you’re at an authentic Persian restaurant, select a saffron dish (over long grain rice for authenticity) and appreciate how much history came from so small a flower.