The history of saffron comes from afar. The oldest saffron crops date back 3000 years and were present in different cultures, continents and civilisations. Saffron is a spice obtained from the stigma of the crocus sativus flower, a plant that reaches just over 15 centimetres.

This spice is one of the most expensive in the world historically (known as “red gold”) because it takes one hundred thousand flowers to get a kilo of saffron. Its value is usually five times higher than vanilla and thirty times higher than cardamom.

Throughout history, saffron has been used as a condiment, fragrance, dye and drug against some diseases.

Origins of saffron

Saffron is native to Southwest Asia, but the first crops were grown in Greece. The plant of this spice was artificially selected from the crocus cartwrightianus flower. The purpose of this was to obtain a stigma of the flower larger than normal.

The spice was first documented in the 7th century B.C. by Assyrian botanists. Since then, documentation on the use of saffron has been known for an interval of 4,000 years. Throughout this time, the flower is used to treat several diseases. Later on, saffron spread slowly through Eurasia, later reaching parts of North Africa, North America and Oceania.

Saffron in ancient times

As previously mentioned, saffron was present in several cultures. Although it was the Assyrians who documented the spice for the first time, there are frescoes from the Greco-Roman period that show how saffron was collected. These images are said to date back to 1600-1500 B.C. and come from the Minoan civilisation in Crete.

Greco-Roman period

However, there are also legends from the ancient Greeks that say that sailors ran into danger when trying to take saffron from Cicilia. At that time, the cultures that lived in the ancient Mediterranean used the spice mainly for perfume and cosmetics. An example of this was that Cleopatra used saffron in her baths. However, there is evidence that Egyptian doctors used saffron as a treatment for various stomach diseases.

Saffron in Asia

In the Middle East, some prehistoric caves have been found with images made from saffron pigments, which are 50,000 years old. The Sumerians used the flower for their potions and medicinal concoctions.

In ancient Persia, it was also used as part of rituals to the gods, as well as colouring, perfume and medicine to treat melancholy. However, the Persian civilisation was the first one to use saffron in the kitchen to flavour different dishes and drinks, such as rice or tea. It was believed to have narcoleptic and aphrodisiac properties.

Later, saffron expanded to Central Asia (more specifically to India and China, with much discussion about the dates). Saffron is also included in some Chinese medical texts, the most important being a pharmacopoeia called Bencao Gangmu (Materia Medica). This dated to around 1600 B.C.

Arrival to Europe

In Europe, cultivation of the plant was interrupted and began to decline with the fall of the Roman Empire. However, it returned with the arrival of the Arabs in Europe, with the formation of al-Andalus and its settlement in areas of France and Italy. Over the centuries, saffron was increasingly cultivated and marketed (England being one of the main regions). However, with the arrival of puritanism in the Middle Ages and later with the use of new spices from Asia and the “New World”, its use decreased.

How is it used today?

Despite the fact that its use in Europe has been relegated to southern countries (such as Spain, Italy and France), saffron is a very important element in Mediterranean culture. Its main use is in cooking, especially in rice dishes. However, saffron has many other health benefits; therefore it is also used as a natural medicine for certain ailments. It is also used in festivities in countries such as India.