Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Crocus / Saffron

Danish: Krokus/ Safran)

Crocus is one of the very first spring flowers in the garden

Saffron is commonly used in the Oriental and Mediterranean kitchen.

The wild botanical crocus arrives already in January, and is succeeded by the various garden crocus with the big flowers from February into the month of March. The wild crocus has its origin in the Mediterranean. From Homer's time saffron was called krokos in Greek language. The poet uses saffron as a metaphor for the golden colour of dawn, but the word krokos is also used in Greece for the similarly coloured egg yolk. The word saffron derives from the Arab word Zafaran meaning yellow - it was mentioned as far back as 1500 b.c. in many classical writings as well as in the Bible.

The large-flowered crocus origins from The Alps and the Pyrenees. For garden this crocus is available in many variants. The yellow ones hold much C-vitamin, and the birds love them. They need C-vitamins after the winter. Wise little birds. Crocus react to the light, they open their heads on sunny days and remain closed on cloudy days.

saffron (wikipedia)
The first historic signs of saffron reach far, far back. Saffron based pigments have been found in prehistoric paints to illustrate beasts in 50.000 year old cave art found in today's Iraq. Saffron threads have been found interwoven into ancient Persian royal carpets, and 4.500 years ago it was known in China for medicinal use. The Phoenicians used saffron coloured sheets for weddings, and they traded saffron widely across the Mediterranean. In Kashmir was the first real saffron production. The first crocus was planted here before the birth of Christ.

The ancient Greeks and Romans also prized saffron for its use as a perfume and deodorizer. It was also used as a mascara, and saffron threads were stirred into wines, used in potpourris and offered to the deities. It was said that Cleopatra used saffron in her bath, and so did Alexander the Great, but it was for healing his wounds in war.  According to Greek mythology the handsome mortal Crocos fell in love with the beautiful nymph Smilax. But his favors were rebuffed by Smilax and he was turned into a beautiful purple crocus flower.

After the fall of Rome it seems that saffron disappeared from Europe until the 8th century when the Arabs brought it to Spain. Two centuries after their conquering Spain they planted saffron throughout Andalucia, Castile, La Mancha and Valencia. The spice was especially cultivated in Valencia and La Mancha and in the 14th century also in southern France.

The interest for saffron returned when 13th century crusaders brought saffron back from Asia to Northern Europe, where it was used as a dye and condiment. The Saffron Walden in Essex had an industry , where saffron was used in cooking and for dyeing textiles. A recipe from the 1500s has a Fish Cake, where cod is mixed with figs, raisins, cinnamon, saffron and other good stuff.

Saffron is the most precious and most expensive spice in the world - actually it was one of the world's most costy substances throughout history. It's hard work to pluck the crocus, first the flowers, then the stigmas have to be removed - and then they are dried over a charcoal fire. It takes about 80.000 stigmas (some info say 225.000) to produce one pound of dried stigmas.

Paella (wikipedia)
Saffron is very intensive and therefore used in minute amounts. In cooking it's especially known in Spanish Paella, French Bouillabaisse, Italian Risotto Milanese, English Saffron Cakes and Indian Biryani.

Spain is the premier producer of saffron today.

Danish Source: Brøndegaard-samlingen, Dansk etnobotanik, Folk og flora, Krokus: 
In Denmark was before 1800 made attempts to cultivate saffron crocus , the Danish king gave 200 rigdaler for this purpose. the saffron was also usable for dyeing silk and linen, but after hard winters and dry summers the project failed.
In medicine in DK saffron was used to treat anemia, to regulate menses and to drive out the placenta. Saffron was stated in the Pharmacopoeia in 1772.    

photo crocus and kitchen: grethe bachmann
other photos: wikipedia. 

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