"The odor of saffron is extremely penetrating," according to Alexandre Dumas. "It can cause violent headaches and even death." John Gerard, more moderately, said it was "of a strong smell. When dried, which doth stuffe and trouble the head." Nicholas Cupeppe, most reasonable of all, described it as a "useful aromatic, of a strong penetrating smell, and a warm pungent bitterish taste." He called it an herb of the sun, "it refresheth the spirit." He continued, "and is good against fainting fits and the palpitation of the heart." He did warn against overindulgence in it, but the warning was hardly necessary: Who could afford to overindulge in what is, and almost always has been, the mosty expensive spice in the world?
What makes saffron so expensive is the unavoidably larger amount of hand labor necessary to produce a small amount of it. Saffron is the dried stigmas, and usually a part of the styles, of the flower of Crocus stivus, which have to be picked painstakingly out of each blossom, flower by flower.
During the two years of life allowed commercially grown saffron plants according to Louis Lagriffe, in "LeLivre des Epices, des Condiments et des Aromates", one hectare (2.47 acres) of land can produce 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of flowers. It takes 100,000 fresh flowers to produce 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of saffron.
To get 1 pound of saffron you need between 300,000 and 400,000 stigmas (Mary S. Atwood); more than 200,000 stigmas (Rosemary Hemphill); 50,000 stigmas (Joan M. Jugfleisch); 45,000 stigmas (Louis Lagriffe); 85,000 flowers (Elizabeth David) and 75,000 flowers (Santha Rama Rau). The most cowardly commentator of them all evades the issue by writing vaguely that it takes "acres of plants to produce a small quantity" (Waverley Root).
Fortunately we do not need to beggar ourselves to enjoy this pungent, interesting and, regardless of Alexandre Dumas' opinion, inoffensive seasoning, for a little saffron goes a long way. "One grain," wrote Elizabeth David, "or one-547th of an avoidupois ounce of these tiny, fiery-looking orange and red threadlike objects scarcely fills the smallest salt spoon, but provides flavor and coloring for a typical Milanese risotto, Spanish paella or bouillabaise, for four to six people."
"Threadlike objects" may puzzle American cooks, who, if they use saffron at all, buy it in powdered form, put up in little envelopes with the greatest of care so that none of it will be lost inadvertently when they are opened, as if the contents were gold dust, and indeed they very nearly are. But saffron also can be had in other forms -- in cakes, with stigmas and styles pressed together, or as "hay saffron," the unpulverized individual stigmas, which is the way many Europeans prefer it.
Some European recipes even give the exact number of the little threads you should pick carefully out of the heap to flavor one dish or another. The stigmas are strong in flavor, too strong to be added directly to any dish.They are put into a cup and covered with hot water. When the liquid has become bright yellow and gives off the characteristic saffron odor, it is added to the dish.
Whole Valencia stigmas (which many cooks consider the best) impart a richer, fuller flavor to food, and cost only half as much as powdered saffron. Saffron in powdered form has the further disadvantage that it lends itself freely to adulteration, which is always to be feared in the case of high-priced foods.
Some merchants, though not exactly scrupulous, limit themselves nevertheless to moistening saffron with oil or water, thus charging you the price of saffron for the added weight of water. But others shamelessly mix saffron with safflower (Carthamus tinctorius, false saffron in English and bast saffron in French), which produces the same color but has virtually no taste; or they may counterfeit saffron with marigold petals.
Tumeric (Carcuma longa, Indian saffron in French) easily could be used as a saffron adulterant, turning rice, for instance, as yellow as saffron does, but is oftener used knowingly as saffron substitute, for is has its own characteristic flavor, as interesting as that of saffron, but different. Many persons nevertheless have difficulty telling the two parts, so we often hear of Indian "saffron" dishes which actually are made with tumeric. But India does use a good deal of saffron (kesar in Hindi), such as in the classic dish of saffron-flavored rice and lamb called shahjahani birjani in honor of the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal.
Also confusable with saffron, as a growing plant, is Colchicum autumnale, meadow saffron in English and the same, safran des pres, in French -- a bad mistake as it is poisonous.
Saffron probably was never so important in the kitchen as in Italy during the Renaissance. In Florence it went into everything, from soup to desserts. In Milan, the famous saffron flavored riotto alla milanese was supposed to have been invented in 1574 by a cook named Zafferano.
As Zafferano means "saffron," this coincidence would be enough to discredit the whole story, but it was not a coincidence neglect to explain, Zafferano was not his name, it was his nickname, given him precisely because he made so much of saffron. This overindulgence in a rather special seasoner which needs to be used sparingly may not have been particularly admirable in all of his dishes, but in this one, served with its traditional accompaniment of osso bues for blue. Saffron gave Modena its salsizza gialla, yellow sausage, and the Duke of Este his Royal Golden Soup, a sweet concoction of wildly improbable ingredients which seem to belong in a punch, not in a soup.
Saffron was called for by "Le Menagier de Paris" in 1393. A French reader today probably would be baffled if, in an old book, he came across a reference to poisson chanclume, a word he would not find in modern dictionaries. It means fish which first had been baked and then poached briefly in a bouillon containing bread, wine and saffron.
In England a saffron soup, in which the seasoning is the raison d'etre for the whole dish, appears in "The Forme of Cury" a cookbook compiled by the cooks of Richard II in 1378. English 15 and 16th-century cookbooks are full of recipes in which saffron appears with everything from beans to cherries.
So far as I know there is no particular relationship between saffron and Lent, but Charles Estienne, in his 16th-century "Maison Rustique," wrote, "Saffron should be used in all Lenten soups, sauces and meats. Without saffron, we would have neither good purees, good split peas nor good sauces." In England saffron bread, thought to date from the 15th century (then sweetened, now not) was made especially during Lent. (Saffron has a different date with the calendar in Sweden: Lussekatter, a sweet saffron bread, is eaten there on Dec. 13, reputedly the darkest day of the year).
Saffron was an important seasoner in Elizabethan England. "What made the Englisher people sprightly," said Sir Francis Drake, "was the liberal use of saffron in their broths and sweet-meats." Survivals from those sprightly days include Cornish saffron cakes and the saffron buns of the English tea table, which, wrote Adrian Bailey, "have a yeomanlike solidity that defies any but the strongest teeth and the stoutest hearts."
Paradoxical as it may seem, the most expensive spice in the world plays an important role in the cooking of a people reputed for their simplicity and their abhorrence of luxury and self-indulgence -- the Pennsylvania Dutch. Since they grow their saffron themselves and eat it themselves, its price on the world market is a negligible factor. The considerable amount of hand labor involved accords well with their philosphy -- they are hostile to machines and prefer to work with their muscles, and they are given to rearing large families which provide an abundant supply of labor.
Their addicttion to saffron is more or less an accident, to which the clue is provided by a recipe found in almost all Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks, that for Schwenkfelder Cake -- flavored with saffron. It was a family named Schwenkfelder which emigrated to the United States in the 18th century, bringing with it the materials of the business it had been pursuing in Germany -- growing saffron. Saffron flourished in their new home, where the Schwenkfelder's neighbors acquired such a taste for it that today it is one of the commonest spices in Pennsylvania Dutch country, appearing in almost all chicken dishes, in noodles, in soups and sauces and in sweet pastries.