It is thought that saffron originated in Nepal, although we do not know for sure. We know that, traditionally, Buddhist monks used it to color their robes, and that it was already being cultivated in the 3rd or 4th millennium BC.
It may have been taken to Greece from Kashmir by Alexander the Great (5th century BC).
Saffron is present in all civilizations. It has always been highly valued for its use in medicine, cosmetics (it was used as a perfume and deodorant), and cooking, and also for its color.
Many legends are associated with it. In ancient Egypt, it already had this reputation as an aphrodisiac, which is why Cleopatra used to bathe in it. The Romans did the same.
The latter took it to Gaul, where it was extensively cultivated, then abandoned after the fall of the Roman Empire. Many centuries later, the Arabs started to cultivate it in North Africa and then, during their conquests, they took it to Spain and up to Poitiers in France.
Gradually, saffron spread to other countries and made it across to America along with the thousands of emigrants who, fleeing the religious persecution taking place in Europe in the 18th century, settled in the province of Pennsylvania.
Saffron is sold in dried or freeze-dried pistils, or powdered. It usually comes in very small boxes.
The quality and characteristics of saffron mainly depend on its country of origin (which must be stated on the label).
Saffron is used in almost all cuisines of the world. In India, Iran, and Spain, it is used to flavor rice, broth, sauces, and fish.
It is an essential ingredient in bouillabaisse, curry, paella, and some risottos. It is used in Moroccan tagines and Indian biryanis.
It is also used in desserts.
It should always be added halfway through cooking because, although it takes time to develop its flavor, extended cooking damages it.
Saffron is very fragile and must be kept in its original box in a cool, dry place. It will wilt if left in the open air.
Saffron contains over 150 compounds and is rich in carotenes. However, given the minute quantities consumed, this is completely irrelevant!
It has always had a reputation as an aphrodisiac but, as one might expect, this has never been confirmed by any scientific study.
Different varieties of Crocus sativus are cultivated around the world.
The saffron produced in Spain is quite soft, but a lot of Iranian saffron is marketed as Spanish. Azafran de La Mancha has PDO status.
Saffron from Italy has a stronger flavor. One Italian saffron variety, the Zafferano dell'Aquila, grown in the Abruzzo region, has a particularly pungent aroma and intense color.
The strongest saffron varieties come from Greece, including the organic Krokos Kozanis, which has PGI status, Morocco, Iran, and India.
Saffron from Kashmir, which is very dark maroon and has a particularly intense aroma, is now rare.
Saffron from Mund, in the canton of Valais in Switzerland, has a very subtle fragrance and is one of the best.
In France, saffron is grown primarily in the Gâtinais and Quercy areas, but it is also grown by small producers in the Provence region, near Mont Ventoux, in Drôme, in Creuse, etc.
A small amount of a particular variety of saffron is grown in the U.S.: Pennsylvania Dutch saffron, which has a particular, quite earthy, flavor.
New Zealand and England also produce saffron.