A History Of The Species Of Crocus Sativus (Saffron)
It will be evident to anyone in just the first few lines that this is a highly personal take on the intriguing path saffron has taken through time. Although I thoroughly researched the background and details, much of what I relate to has been filtered through a fiction screen.
The most memorable history is essentially good storytelling. While I have remained faithful and accurate to the facts to secure the flavor of the characters and events, I have sometimes included dialogue and thoughts based solely on the whims of life and my experience of human nature. Scholars and historians may frown and quibble, but since I have never claimed to be more than what I present here, I hope they will stretch back and enjoy the read in the long run.
Many may find it curious that a book about saffron leaves India almost entirely out of the telling. When people think of saffron, they frequently think of India and Spain. Although both countries have a long tradition of cooking with spice, it is not native to either and introduced the practice of cooking with sauce; it is not native to either and was raised by conquerors, the Moors in Spain and the ancient Persians in India. When I began researching saffron, I quickly realized that while each country had a complex history of using spice, Spain's is a little more straightforward and connected to the matter's themes. In contrast, India is an intricate labyrinth, and to do it justice would require a book of its own. (Part of saffron's history in India would include its travels into China, a less well-known journey, but an interesting one.) It would be rewarding to write that book as well.
A word about the measurements used in some of the recipes: I have maintained the terms in the translations of many ancient texts. For instance, the Egyptian recipes found in the Papyrus Eber use the dirham, a unit of Moroccan currency, as a unit of measure.
This is like saying, "Take 10 cents' worth of." Most of the recipes in which the dirham is used this way also require obscure or impossible-to-find ingredients with no known modern equivalents, so it is tough to prepare them. I have included them, though, for their beautiful and poetic language, as well as for their historical significance.
Please note that the medical recipes on the Flonita Website are solely for historical purposes. I do not recommend that anyone try even the most innocent-sounding ones. I do not think any of these medicinal recipes would be harmful in and of themselves. Still, it is dubious whether they will cure the illness they were intended to, and relying upon them rather than consulting a doctor could do actual harm.
The one true thing that can be said about saffron is that it never wears out its welcome. It withdraws from the landscape when it is no longer wanted or appreciated.
Fare thee well
She was the term Reverend William Herbert, the Dean of Manchester, used when he described saffron's retiring nature. Crocuses were his life's work, a passion that left the souls of his faithful flock playing second fiddle as he wandered the world in the mid-1800s, searching for every variance in shade and nuance the flower took. To explore the places he could not travel to, he enlisted a wide circle of friends, ambassadors, and foreign dignitaries, who seemed to have obliged him by setting aside official duties to tramp out into the countryside and hunt for native specimens, then send back a sample or two for him to grow in his greenhouse in the smog-darkened clatter of industrializing England. The Reverend compiled all of the information he had gathered over the years in a manuscript before he succumbed to illness and died (the preface of his posthumously published study tragically surmises that he might have picked something up on his treks, overlooking the fact that he was not a young man and that the heat and diligence of passionate pursuits – even one involving a mere flower often ruin one's health). However, in his gentle, touching style, he writes pretty tenderly of saffron's modern peril.
"I suspect that the birthplace of C. Sativus [saffron crocus], and many of its happy homes, has long [been] converted into vineyards."
Led by history books, rumor, and instinct, in places as close to home as Saffron Walden and as far away as Turkey, Herbert searched every autumn for sweeping vistas of purple blooms and found instead the land transformed, plowed under, and usurped for more convenient uses. Cultivated saffron fields began to be pushed across Europe toward the end of the seventeenth century and given over to the cultivation of discoveries from the great ocean expeditions.
Corn and potatoes quickly took to European soil and were found to be more practical and far less troublesome to grow and harvest; the elite crowd's fashionable tables were now crammed with pots of chocolate, tea, and coffee, cakes fragrant with vanilla and citrus, and dizzying glasses of addictive liqueurs that the Medici queens of France insisted on serving at their courts. Outside its far-away native homes, saffron's presence dwindled to those few places where the people could not see their lives without its sunny presence nor their feasts without the spice's spiny heat. The south of France, Spain, and Italy all happened to have warm climates where the corm, if it had willed itself, would have grown on its own accord, but it didn't have to. The threads had embroidered themselves so expertly into the fanciful design of these lands that not only was it cosseted in
well-tended fields, but its harvest became an occasion to celebrate, to fill the village plaza with one last whirling summer spree.
And here, in these few places, saffron would have remained if not for the play of money and God that propelled it toward America. The journey began during the Reformation – one of those historical periods when ordinary lives were routinely transformed overnight. On October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther tacked
his thoughts on the doors of the Wittenberg castle cathedral, he fragmented the world into sharp shards. The spirit of Luther's beliefs liberated the clergy, emboldened the peasants, and made everyone question the very rhythm of everyday life. As a result, more ways of worshiping the same God were brought into being than Luther could have imagined or desired.
Consider, first, the Anabaptists, who came to believe that such an important thing as being baptized should be done with an adult's careful heart and mind. That was their main disagreement not only with Rome but with Luther's teachings as well. Their conflict with the secular state resulted in refusing to bear arms or take an oath. Then their leaders – particularly the charismatic and handsome young tailor John of Leiden – took those principals one step further and insisted that the world would be better off without civil laws, marriage, or private properties.
At this point, some Anabaptists thought the leaders had gone too far and turned instead to Menno Simons, a former Catholic priest.
Simons wanted to return Christianity to the apostles' times, recognizing the only two sacraments that Jesus himself was recorded as having performed the baptism and the transformation embodied in the Last Supper. His followers found mainly in Switzerland and Germany, became known as Mennonites and distinguished themselves by attempting to live an uncomplicated life devoted to God and family. The Amish, centered mainly in Germany and led by Jacob Amman, broke off from the Mennonites and clung to an even more fundamental line, one that would separate itself from the world and refrain from all outward displays of embellishment, even to the point of refusing to build churches.
To one degree or another, the modest beliefs of these good people so immensely rubbed against the rulers of the time that town squares across central Europe smoldered with great bonfires built with the kindling of unrecanting followers, their tortured bodies neatly tied and stacked together to feed the flames carefully. John of Leiden, who for a time took over the city of Monster and ruled it as the Kingdom of Zion, was clawed with hot pincers until his bones were exposed. His tongue was pulled from his mouth, and finally, he was stabbed in the heart. Men were publicly castrated and eviscerated; women and children were tightly bound and thrown into the Danube and the Rhine. Even those who attempted to renounce their new faith were run down and executed. Worst of all, the faithful's farmhouses were burned, their orchards cut down, their vines torn apart, and the ground seeded with salt so that nothing would ever grow again. Of all the horrors the sects suffered, this was by far the most unbearable, for it struck to the quick, threatening values that were in form and substance older and more sacred than even Christianity, the divinity of the earth in sustaining life.
The Anabaptists had all but been destroyed in the siege of Munster, and the Mennonites and Amish, along with like-minded kin, decided to flee their homelands. They were joined by another persecuted sect, the German Dunkards, who, in reverence to the Trinity, plunged their believers three times into the baptismal water (but somehow became more famous for dipping their delicious donuts into their morning coffee, a secular spin on a display of piety, if ever there was one).
Many found shelter in sympathetic England, but a few more adventurous souls (particularly the Dunkards) sailed straight for the American colonies when they heard of William Penn's vision for all religions to be able to live in tolerance together in what he called the "Holy Experiment" of a peaceable kingdom. In 1683, the Dunkards traveled to Pennsylvania and founded the village of Germantown just outside Philadelphia. With good reports coming back from America, the foreigners left England for settlements along the Hudson but, longing for a place of their own soon turned toward Pennsylvania, where they discovered the heart of God beating beneath the undulating hills of the Susquehanna River valley.
After all the Amish and Mennonites had been through, after all the miles they had traveled, it is easy to imagine how exhilarated they must have felt when they saw such a promising country stretching before them. Here were forests of solid trees, filled with more game than they could ever possibly use, rimming endless fields of sweet and fertile virgin soil. Word spread to families left behind in Europe that Utopia had been found, and by the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the German, Swiss, and Alsatian people who composed the two religious communities and who were soon joined by their compatriots from Rhineland, Westphalia, and Saxony constituted a third of Pennsylvania's population. The English settlers began to refer to them all as the Dutch (though none have even a smidgen of Dutch ancestry). If they did not exactly warm to their new neighbors with their different language, customs, and dress, the English came to enjoy the benefits of their hard work as their skillful farming fed the growing nation.
Under the tenets of their faith, the Pennsylvania Dutch communities helped each other to construct handsome stone farmhouses and sturdy barns. They cleared vast swatches of forests and turned the river valley into a tawny mosaic of wheat, oat, and barley fields. Cherry and apple orchards padded the hillsides; neat beds of vegetables and herbs swelled in vast profusion to their wide kitchen doors.
And though they dressed in plain attire and led an austere life of work and prayer as they still do even to this day, essentially living as they have always done in a freeze-frame of the rural eighteenth century – there was nothing unadorned or the least bit restrained about the food they made. These people cooked and loved to do so almost as much as they loved to eat, setting tables that swayed with many dishes, some plain, others in their way quite fancy, all packed with abundantly distinct flavors. The Pennsylvania Dutch settlers cooked in a style still touched by the Middle Ages, rich in spices, sharp with vinegar, and mellow with honey. Many of their dishes were made in one pot and composed of varying flavors that, over a long and slow cooking period, melted into a pleasing, savory Lange. Travelers who passed through the region (which forms a diagonal slant from east to west across the lower quarter of the state) never forgot the meals they tasted there, especially at a tavern called the Sun In, run by the evangelical Moravians in the small town of Bethlehem possibly the country's first gastronomical destination. The meals that were offered at the inn pots brimming with scrapple-stuffed pork belly and tart sauerbraten; platters laden with baked trout or roasted duck; bowls of fresh vegetable pickles and succotash; rich, sugary, creamy pies; cakes as tall and airy as starched lace bonnets; baskets of dense, chewy bread; and everything washed down with pitchers of root beer, ginger beer, buttermilk, apple cider, mulberry wine were the same as those cooked in farmhouses. Their descriptions that can be read in old letters and diaries sound as delicious now as they must have been.
It was hard, though, in the new country to find the necessary ingredients. The Pennsylvania Dutch incorporated many native foods into their recipes. Still, some elements had no acceptable substitutes, and these, such as spelled, a highly nutritious grain known as German wheat, were brought from Europe. One old legend traced to the batter of a delicious cake is that saffron first came to America packed in the trunk of yet another religious group, the Schwenkfelders.
Many sect members had grown saffron in Germany as a cash crop and saw no reason to leave their livelihood behind when they emigrated. If they did, others soon followed suit, for by 1730, enough farms were growing saffron across the region to meter out a small yet steady supply that satisfied the local cooking needs. But a couple of German Jewish merchants in Philadelphia realized that there was money to be made in the local crop if they could offer saffron to the Spanish colonists stuck on Caribbean islands without a single pinch to alleviate their homesickness. The venture had much in its favor: the merchants had experienced farmers eager to grow saffron and sailing ships that could make the voyage faster down the American coastline than across the Atlantic Ocean. They also had a network of Quaker and Jewish merchants on the islands who could readily provide agents to trade and sell the threads.
Even though Pennsylvania's climate is not ideal for growing saffron, the able Dutch farmers managed to coax the corms into bloom year after year. It was a small matter, then, to increase production, ship the harvest down to the Philadelphia docks, and pack it into cargo holds alongside molasses, rum, cod, and, far too often, slaves. The venture was a success almost from the start. In the years before the Revolutionary War, saffron was listed on the Philadelphia commodity exchange on nearly a weekly basis, its price calculated the same as it had always been equal to gold.
The American saffron trade would have continued swimmingly enough if the War of 1812 hadn't intruded. British blockades jammed ports, sunk merchant ships without mercy, and left the saffron farmers in Pennsylvania with a heap of threads on their hands. Since trade with the Spanish islanders (who had their problems with the British) was never fully reestablished after the war, this would have been the end of the American saffron, except that the thrifty Pennsylvania Dutch cooks took to adding even more of it to their dishes.
When I began to spend a great deal of time thinking about food, I kept smacking up against the undertone of dismay, even disdain, that many writers use when exploring the subject of American cooking. I kept thinking at first (as I usually do) that there was something I was missing here, some intellectual thread and probably taste that I was lacking, for the truth is that there isn't much in American cooking, past or present, that I find wanting.
Over the years, I might have grown to be more pig-headed about the matter. Still, I realize now that I have this firm underlining of goodwill toward our nation's cooking because I was raised in such proximity to the Pennsylvania Dutch. My sympathies were helped by having been born into a family of sound, even excellent, cooks, but much of my compassion is the direct result of the lazy Sunday drives my father took his family on.
After Mass (and a hardy breakfast of scrambled eggs and scrabbling a sort of Pennsylvania Dutch paˆte of ground pork scraps, cornmeal, and spices that is sliced and fried until a crisp shell forms), still in our starched, petticoated dresses and clean shirts, we would pile into the car. Destinations were always murky, though they must have been discussed between my parents because it was nearly impossible to lead my mother unquestioningly where she would not go. But the information rarely filtered down to my brother and sister and me before and even after we climbed into the backseat. We must have complained, or at least whined; there was indeed some pinching and squabbling about seat hogging and who would be squeezed into the middle, but it never stopped the Sunday trips or even cut them noticeably short, a feat that I marvel at now that I am the parent of two sweetly obstreperous children of my own.
With all the propaganda power of hindsight and memory, I see these excursions as the best of times, free of our family's particular woes and more open to the world's wonders than we could ever have been aware of. Yet, the truth is that the knowledge I hold dearest was learned and squeezed in between Joe and Sue and in trusting that our parents were driving us somewhere good. If anything were happening in the center of the city – a new exhibit at the museums, perhaps, or at the convention center (the boat show, even though our family would never have imagined owning a boat, was a yearly favorite), we would head down the East River Drive and into town. Other times, we just drove away from our crowded Philadelphia neighborhood, across the Schuylkill River and through Conshohocken to a highway that would soon peter out into a two-lane country road leading into the bosom of Lancaster County.
This was a different world, not so much for the people that we zoomed past hobbling along in old-fashioned black buggies and wagons drawn by side-blinded horses, but for the wide-open stateliness of the land, the horizon stretching for all eternity, unimpeded by anything taller than a tree, so unlike our constricting city. Sometimes, we would stop at a roadside farm stall or market to buy some vegetables or a basket of berries; if it was the fall or late spring, we headed for one of the numerous fairs that still dot the county and compete for tourist business. The handiwork on display – perfect pies and well-turned blanket stitching – allowed my mother to fall into easy conversation with the women in gossamer bonnets, their long dresses covered with clean aprons, making them appear like more approachable versions of the nuns I spent all my youth seated in uneasy attention before. But my father had a more challenging time with the men who seemed more standoffish, even forbidding, in their black garb, the elders with their long beards, and the boys and young men, too, masked by a watchful demeanor. As a rule, and generally to his children's embarrassment, my father rarely hesitated to engage strangers in conversation, particularly in a place he didn't know anything about. From every walk of life, all kinds of people fell into step with him, allowing him to ask sometimes pointed questions about their lives instead. Yet he rarely approached the Amish and Mennonite men. Or, if he did, it was for something as general as directions, and then he met them with a polite reserve of his own.
And so the afternoon passed in wandering down country roads into small, clapboard towns where a different language was spoken and another way of life was lived. We rambled across farms where the families opened their doors to strangers and showed them how getting along without electricity and modern appliances was possible. We marveled over displays of quilts and handsomely crafted furniture. We hung on split-rail fences to pet placid cows and stared at gigantic pigs. Horses took sugar cubes and apples from our outstretched hands; chickens and roosters pecked about our feet. We did everything we could do in an afternoon in the country, and then we got back into the car and went looking for someplace to eat.
This was, I suspect, the real reason why my father drove us out this way as often as he did. He was not a man given to gastronomical fantasies. He greatly annoyed my mother with his lack of clear desire for food. "Why bother?" she'd say later when it was just the two of them to cook for. Yet her fine appetite and genuine need to cook would get the better of her, and she would force herself to make them a dinner she knew he would only pick through, but she would enjoy without bounds. My father, however, held a particular desire for everything prepared by the Pennsylvania Dutch. I don't know where this came from; his mother was born in Ireland, his father from Protestant English stock (a shame he tried to hide by insisting that the family's name was really Welsh), but he would dig into a platter of stewed pigs' feet or a bowl of spelled soup and swear he was in heaven. The places where we ate were family-style restaurants, with no such thing as an individual order. Instead, the serving dishes were set on the table, and everyone helped themselves. There was always freshly baked bread and an assortment of side dishes (the traditional accompaniment of seven sweet and seven sour relishes). My brother, sister, and I most wanted to go to the places that placed whole cakes and pies down along with the main meal. Sometimes, we shared a long table with other families, but it didn't matter who we were with. The food was so good and plentiful, and we ate hungrily ("Better a burst stomach than wasted food," a placard read at one establishment) that we hardly ever talked, even among ourselves. Instead, we put our hearts and minds to the task, ate all we could hold,
shuffled out to the car, and drove back home in the falling dusk, satiated with our Sunday drive. Among the artful dishes of the Pennsylvania Dutch, I first became familiar with saffron. I can remember only the look of it, though, how it soaked the noodles in a golden shade, roused a slice of chicken, and powdered the plump belly of a trout, but I cannot recall ever tasting it before that time in the cold northern city. It is conceivable that I was too young to be astonished by such a voluptuously natural flavor; children are rarely amazed at such earthy pleasures, taking them as a matter of course and being guided instead by their natural inclination to either embrace or shy away. I do know, though, by the recollection of my mother's small reprimanding smack on my arm, that I sucked up the noodles with a lusty slurp because they were plump with sweet butter, chewy but soft, like creamy eggs.
But, then, my memory of those essentially simple meals, where much of what is good in American cooking can be found, are all accompanied by such sounds of gluttony. Saffron is still grown in and around Lancaster County, though hardly any of it makes it out into the world, and it travels only as far as the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. American saffron does not have the elegant languor of its European and Eastern cousins. It is more bumptious tasting of the earth, its color diffusing more freely into the hue of a broiling sunrise. Maybe it is the dark, rich Pennsylvania dirt or the too-short burst of steaming hot days followed by the bracing northern chill. Or perhaps it is just the shortness of time, the freshness of the stock, that, like the country's cooking itself, gives our saffron the raucous radiance of a teenager only beginning to grasp the entire expanse of God's gifts.
As I have said, there are conflicting reports about the Schwenkfelders.
Either they're blood relatives who were saffron farmers in Germany, or they were a conservative religious sect founded by Kasper Schwenkfelder, whom Luther suspected of harboring some Anabaptist leanings. Whatever the case (and I'll throw my hat in with the latter theory), the Schwenkfelders loved saffron and brought corms and a whole style of saffron cooking when they came looking for refuge on America's shores.
This cake succeeded in crossing over from being a regional specialty to a staple of American cooking, and the recipe for it used to be included in most general American cookbooks. It is simply a delicious cake, but its versatility probably made it a favorite. Today, it might be considered a breakfast or coffee cake, but I have seen it mentioned explicitly for after dinner, as a late-night snack, and (in a 1950s-era cookbook) as a "teen party favorite."
The saffron flavor in the cake is very light but unmistakable, and it's quite lovely with the cinnamon-brown sugar topping. For a special treat, lightly toast a slice and then top it with ice cream.
For the cake:
Two large eggs, slightly beaten two medium potatoes, peeled, and 5 cups all-purpose flour boiled until tender 1⁄2 cup of water from boiling potatoes
For the topping:
A medium-sized pinch of saffron, 1 cup of all-purpose flour
One package of dry yeast and one teaspoon of cinnamon
1 cup and 1⁄4 teaspoon sugar 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
3⁄4 cup warm milk, one stick of butter, chilled
One stick of butter, two tablespoons of very soft butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
To make the cake: Mash the potatoes well, ensuring no lumps are left and reserved. Bring 1⁄4 cup of the potato water to a boil in a small saucepan, remove from heat, and stir in the saffron. Let steep for 20 minutes.
Mix the rest of the potato water with the yeast and 1⁄4 teaspoon
of sugar in a small bowl. Stir until the yeast and sugar are dissolved. Let stand in a warm place until the yeast starts to bubble.
In a large mixing bowl, stir the warm milk, butter, eggs, and sugar. Add 3 cups of flour and stir to combine. Add the mashed potatoes and the yeast mixture to the flour mixture. Stir again just until all the ingredients are incorporated. Mix in the saffron water and the rest of the flour with a metal spoon. The dough will be pretty stiff.
Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead for 5 to 10 minutes or until the dough is silky and elastic. Transfer the dough to a well-greased bowl and turn it once to coat the surface with butter; then cover it with a cloth and place the bowl in a warm place until the dough doubles in bulk for about 1 hour.
Punch down the dough and divide it in half; pat each half into a round shape. Place each half in a 9-inch layer cake pan and let it rise again in a warm place until the dough doubles about 30 to 45 minutes.
To make the topping: While the dough rises, combine the flour with the cinnamon and brown sugar in a medium-sized bowl, and with a fork or pastry knife, or your fingertips, work the chilled butter into the dry ingredients until it looks like bran flakes. When the dough has doubled in size again, brush the warm butter over the top of each cake, completely covering the surface; then sprinkle the topping equally over the butter on each cake. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until the tops are brown. Remove from the pans and cool on a cake rack.
Four teaspoons of cold butter
1 cups all-purpose flour
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
Two large egg yolks
1⁄4 teaspoon ground saffron (see above)
Cut the butter into the flour and salt to form fine crumbs. Beat the eggs and egg yolks until lemony; then add the saffron. Let the eggs rest a little for the saffron color to rise (about 15 minutes because the eggs are cold, the saffron won't blossom in color and flavor the way it would in a watery hot liquid).
Make a well in the center of the crumb mixture and add the eggs in one swoop. Work together until you have dough. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough as thin as possible, run it through a pasta maker, then drape it over a clothesline or the back of a chair (I use a cupboard door). Let the dough dry for about 20 minutes; lay it flat and cut it into thin strips. You can leave the noodles long or cut them short.
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and drop the noodles in. Bring the water back to a boil and cook for 4 minutes. Drain quickly and mix in big pats of sweet butter. Serve and eat immediately. Serves about 6.
For more explanation about the origin of saffron cultivation, follow us. We are here to fulfill the heightened demand for quality saffron to power your confidence, according to the laboratory fact sheet at Flonita Saffron company. You can now buy pure and quality saffron from worldwide at the Flonita saffron market.
Willard P. Secrets of saffron: the vagabond life of the world's most seductive spice. Beacon Press; 2002 Apr 11.
Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Engineering in Gonabad University of Medical Sciences, Razavi Khorasan, Iran