Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sure Sign of Spring--Paella, anyone?

No flower it seems to me, is more emblematic of winter’s end than the Crocus sativa. Brought to the United States on ships by settlers who planted them around their cabins, the bright faces – yellow, lavender, mauve, and even white must surely have been a welcome sight after a long, hard winter. C. sativus thrives in the Mediterranean and Mediterranean-like climates such as California, in the U. S. where hot, dry summer breezes sweep semi-arid lands. It can nonetheless survive cold winters by tolerating frosts as low as −10 °C (14 °F) and short periods of snow cover.

Of course it all begins with a legend in which it seems the Greek gods Zeus & Hura loved each other so passionately that the land where they lived burst open with crocuses. Aside from the crocus’s beauty and Greek gods’ passions,  crocuses are grown for their high value as the world’s most expensive spice and dye which comes from the stigmas of the crocus sativus. It thrives in vast fields in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea—Spain, Italy and Greece. It has a fascinating history and an intricate and equally fascinating taxonomy. Thanks again to Wikipedia, here are some salient facts:

The history of saffron cultivation reaches back more than 3,000 years. Experts believe saffron was first documented in a 7th century BC Assyrian botanical reference. Documentation of saffron's use over the span of 4,000 years in the treatment of some 90 illnesses has been uncovered.

Saffron-based pigments (intense yellow) have been found in 50,000 year-old depictions of prehistoric beasts in what is today Iraq. Later, the Sumerians used wild-growing saffron in their remedies and magical potions. The spice was an article of long-distance trade before the Minoan palace culture's 2nd millennium BC peak. Ancient Persians cultivated Persian saffron by the 10th century BC. At such sites, saffron threads were woven into textiles ritually offered to divinities, and used in dyes, perfumes, medicines, and body washes. Thus, saffron threads would be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. Non-Persians also feared the Persians' usage of saffron as a drugging agent and aphrodisiac.

During his Asian campaigns, Alexander the Great used Persian saffron in his infusions, rice, and baths as a curative for battle wounds. Alexander's troops mimicked the practice and brought saffron-bathing back to Greece.

It’s been estimated that 4,000 Crocus sativa plants yield an ounce of saffron, which explains why it was, and is, such a precious commodity. A pound (454 grams) of dry saffron requires 50,000–75,000 flowers, the equivalent of a football field's area of cultivation (110,000-170,000 flowers or two football fields for a kilogram) Some forty hours of labor are needed to pick 150,000 flowers. Stigmas are dried quickly upon extraction and (preferably) sealed in airtight containers.

Saffron prices at wholesale and retail rates range from US$500 to US$5,000 per pound (US$1,100–11,000/kg)—equivalent to £2,500/€3,500 per pound or £5,500/€7,500 per kilogram. In Western countries, the average retail price is $1,000/£500/€700 per pound (US$2,200/£1,100/€1,550 per kilogram). A pound comprises between 70,000 and 200,000 threads.

At that rate, dear readers, paella is NOT on the menu here Just Off the One-Lane Road!

I went out early with my camera this morning.  Couldn't resist these sheep in the sky!

1 comment:

  1. E, you have satisfied my desire to learn one new thing every day. Saffron? No wonder I have never knowingly eaten it.

    BTW, you should enter that photo in a contest!