Tuesday, March 2, 2010

style & stigma: pondering $affron

The mo$t expen$ive $pice, by weight (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saffron).

Made "saffron yogurt" the other day, so I could, per the recipe, "dollop" sunny, yellow yogurt onto my lentil soup.

It's the first time I've used saffron, busting open the crazy-expensive and virtually-empty saffron "jar" that I bought a while back. Witness elaborate packaging, and why I cannot really call it a jar of saffron.

One jar of envelope. Or, so you think...

Aforementioned paper envelope.

Second envelope, this one waxy, from within the papery one.

... and, at last, saffron.

I encourage you to click on the above picture to get a closer look--SO gorgeous.

When I worked for a catering company in college, my first hint that saffron was expensive came when I followed the chef away from the kitchen, down the long hall to his office, where he unlocked a drawer and withdrew a fancy, metal box. That is where he kept the saffron. I was silent, but took note.

Here's the saffron "tea" I made, steeping a pinch of threads in a tablespoon of hot water for a few minutes...

Yogurt before...

... and after.

Every time I'd return to my saffron yogurt stash for my next lentil hit, there's be sheathes of intense color clinging to each saffron thread; it cannot stop giving color.

So, I was thinking about saffron.

Who thought of using the dried stigma and style of flowers (the girl parts) of the saffron crocus flower? People use it for dye and as seasoning (tho' much of it's joy is the color it lends to food, straddling those worlds) and medicinally.

My first thought was it was 1st a dye (mind you, doing no research, just a fun mental exercise). People have been using dye forEVER, and I remember when my roommate gave me stargazer lilies (still my favorite non-native flower, they're so extravagant), she warned me when the unopened ones unfurl, to be careful of the anthers (pollen covered features on end of filaments in flower (which surround the central stigma and style)) 'cause their rust-red pollen stains like crazy. It's also beautiful, so I kept it on and just gave it a wide berth.

I'm temped to grow amaranth 'cause it's a traditional source of dye Native Americans used to color cornbread during important festivals. Stunning plant, and begets red bread. Cool. Also, the flour has tons of protein, so is v. good for you.

Image from Blossomswap, Kira Durbin, www.blossomswap.com/ picture/amaranth.html

I also want to grow blue corn. You can dry it and grind it, creating blue flour (apropos typo was "flower")--more colored bread. =)

I am a color piglet.

The word saffron ultimately derives from a word for yellow. AND it likes a Mediterranean climate, which we have... hm....

So, that's blue, red and yellow.

Anyhow, I can easily imagine accidentally figuring out that some plant might be a good dye. You handle it or brush against it and notice your clothes or skin is stained. And that sparks an idea.

It's been very important in medicine, historically; just found this (NY Times, "Researchers Rewrite First Chapter for the History of Medicine," William H. Honan, March 2, 2004, all brought to me via Wikipedia):

An art historian and a medical researcher say they have pushed back by hundreds of years the earliest use of a medicinal plant.

Until now, the earliest known use was around 1000 B.C., with visual and written evidence for the myrtle, the lily, the poppy and others. Now, scholars say, the dating of a volcanic eruption and botanically accurate wall paintings indicate that saffron has been a versatile medicine since 3,500 years ago.


The most striking evidence for the conclusion that the frescoes show a goddess of medicine lies in written records from many countries about the use of saffron in 90 illnesses over four millennia.

As for visual evidence, one fresco depicts "a woman who appears to be treating her bleeding foot with saffron," Dr. Bendersky said.

Wow. Who knew?

The currently used plant, Crocus sativus, is triploid and sterile (like bananas), so is propagated by corm clones (underground root nodules). People believe this plant came originally from C. cartwrightianus.

Anyhow, I enjoy pondering how people go from unknown plant to plant used for dye, medicine, making baskets, eating, making clothes, building shelters, etc. And how many things around us that we eat, drink, wear, write upon (paper, wood desk), warm our houses with, clean with, and perfume ourselves with, come from plants. And animals. And water and minerals. All from the planet.

Each of these things may not be as expensive as saffron, but they are certainly very valuable.

Just ask my cats, curled up to the toasty wood stove on a winter's day.

the biobabbler


  1. I like to imagine everyone's surprise when that old dried up corn cobb was first thrown into the fire. POP!

  2. Right! I hadn't thought of that, you smarty =)


Cool people write inside rectangles....