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Saffron infusion: a distinguished history
Saffron has a history stretching back to at least the 7th century BC. It is grown in the Middle East and has been traded along the Silk Road, between East and West, for Indian ivory, Chinese silk and Arabian frankincense. Saffron is famed for its value, widely acknowledged to be more valuable by weight than gold. It is picked and selected entirely by hand, requiring around 500 stigmas, known as threads, for each gram of saffron. Once picked the threads are dried. Saffron infusion is the best way to appreciate this historic spice.
The Saffron plant
Unknown in the wild the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is related to the Crocus cartwrightianus which originates from Crete and is likely to have been selected in the Bronze Age for its unusually long stigmas. As such, it is propagated by man and is incapable of natural reproduction as all the plants are male. Each plant has four flowers, each with three stigmas. It grows best in fertile, well drained soils having good spring rainfall and hot, dry summers.
It is well known as a food flavouring and for its distinct rich yellow colour. What is less well known is that it makes an excellent, subtle and uniquely flavoured infusion, used by Alexander the Great. Only very few threads are needed per cup. We suggest you try three or four. Saffron is also noted to have various health benefits. Its inviting aroma is followed by a deep honey flavour with a floral quality but without sweetness. For cooking use no more than ten threads. Add boiling water and leave for several minutes. The threads can be removed if you wish but they can add a distinctive touch to dishes such as rice and an attractive variation to the colour. Alternatively, you can use hot milk or wine for the infusion to be used in dishes. Surplus liquid can be kept in the fridge for a few days.
The best quality saffron is extracted from the Negin Sargol, the tip of the stigmas. This has the most intense flavour, colour and deepest aroma. It is this saffron that we stock. Today Saffron is grown widely in southern Europe and the Middle-East as well as Kashmir. In the 16th century it was widely cultivated in East Anglia, giving rise to the name of the town Saffron Walden which had previously been known as Chipping Walden. Some is now grown in Norfolk.
Saffron is rich in antioxidants which are effective at combating cancers, stress and infection. Active compounds in saffron are noted for their traditional pharmaceutical qualities as an antiseptic, anti-depressant, digestive and anti-convulsant. It is a good source of minerals including copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Potassium helps control heart rate and blood pressure. Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells. Extracts of saffron are used in the pharmaceutical industry for the preparation of medicines.
The spice should be kept in a cool dry place away from sunlight which oxidises the pigments in the stigmas and will therefore reduce the intensity of colour and consequently impair the flavour.
Saffron is a very versatile spice and top quality grades deserves to be better appreciated as a delicious, subtle and healthy infusion. Go to Saffron in our Tea Store.