Tuesday, February 3, 2015

"I'm Just Mad About Saffron ..."

As Pricy As Gold, The Most Expensive Spice In the World

I'm just mad about Saffron, and Saffron is mad about me. This is one spice that slips by most everyone's cooking radar. That's a BIG mistake. Saffron is a hand harvested pistil of a flower. How would I describe the taste of saffron, well it's semi-sweet mellow in food but bitter to taste. It smells like hay, the
ocean, burnt embers. It's aroma is distinct, as delicate like a surgeon, but sharp like a bitch-slap. I know because I'm chewing on some right now. It dominates the dishes it appears in, but delicately acts as a companion to other ingredients. Nothing in the kitchen is as full of paradox, and subtlety as this singularly elegant, and justifiably expensive spice.

Saffron was first documented in the 7th century. The history of saffron spice tracks back over 4500 years and traverses many civilizations, countries, and cultures. Zeus in Greek mythology slept on a bed of saffron. The spice appears in the verses of the Song of Solomon and in Chinese writings dating to 1600 BC. It's said that Cleopatra used it "before encounters with men" I haven't been able to find out how, so use your imagination on that one. A dye from these stigmas colors a 50,000-year-old cave painting in Iraq. Saffron began being used in the middle east and then was used worldwide as a food seasoning, medicine, perfume, and as a dye for clothes. In the middle ages, and unscrupulous dealers would, under law, be burned alive for selling a phony saffron spice. Those people took their spice trading seriously. Make no mistake though since it's initial use at the beginning of its history, right up to today, saffron spice has remained the most expensive spice known in the world. It's native to Asia Minor. The red and gold threads were also highly prized by pharaohs, and kings as an aphrodisiac. Saffron has been used medicinally to reduce fevers, cramps, enlarged livers, and to calm nerves. Also to calm babies during teething. It has also been used externally to for bruises, and rheumatism. Although the majority of the world's saffron is produced in Iran, Spain is the world's largest exporter of saffron.

Saffron, is derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (crocus sativus) a small plant about a foot tall. Approximately 50,000 flowers are needed for 2 pounds of dried saffron. Each flower has three female parts (stigmas) two male parts (stamens) each stigmas is red or dark red in color towards the top and yellow towards the bottom of the stigma, where it is attached to the flower. There are other several plants that can give a yellow orange color to your food but none of these has the hypnotic fragrance of true saffron. You can fool the eye, but not the taste buds. Saffron has a bitter flavor and strong sharp penetrating scent. The flavor, aroma and coloring capability come from the red part of the stigma. The yellow part has no value as a spice. The crocus sativus is in bloom only for about three to four weeks. The stigmas have to be harvested by hand, when the stigmas are dried, they are called Saffron.

The brighter the coloring, the better the strength of the saffron, the less you have to use in a dish to achieve the required effect. Saffron has its own unique taste that is indescribable and really there is not anything else that can be used as a substitute. The flowering period of saffron starts during middle of late October, and lasts until the second week of November. However, the number of saffron flowers, and the time of blooming in any year are dependent upon the temperature, and on the amount of rainfall. The flowers that bloom in October, pushing out two or three fragile, wispy stigmas. Since they can only be harvested by hand, pickers work through the night to collect these shy little wisps.

Professor Silvia Bisti led a study at Italy's L'Aquila University, through the university's ARC Centre of Excellence in Vision Science. It appears that saffron may protect, and correct vision in individuals who have retinitis pigmentosa, or muscular degeneration related to age. The study found that saffron is a powerful antioxidant, affecting the genes that manage fatty acid levels in the membranes of the cells. Vision cells become stronger, and more apt to heal with the support of the antioxidant. The effects are impressive, also with human subjects with age related muscular degeneration experiencing restored sight with the help of saffron. Their next endeavor is to determine which components in saffron contain the vision repairing elements. As the specific ingredients are not readily apparent, although the spice has enjoyed much acclaim for eye health for many centuries. Saffron is full of surprises. Health problems that have been treated with the spice include:

• Digestive problems
• Asthma
• Insomnia
• Menstrual problems
• Common colds
• Inflammation
• Depression
 
Saffron is known to have helped relieve kidney stones. It also improves circulation of blood. In days past, grandmothers used to mix a few sprigs of saffron in hot milk as a night cap for their grand children, to induce sound sleep, and good health. It's been scientifically proven that saffron contains carotenoids which play a vital role in inhibiting skin tumors. Saffron also contains a compound by the name crocin which is helpful in promoting learning, memory retention and recall capacity to a great extent. Several studies have shown encouraging results that saffron might be great in the treatment and management of age related mental impairment, due to saffron's unique compounds like crocin and safranel which belong to the same family of carotenoids.

Saffron contains certain active ingredients also which produce positive effects in patients suffering from neuro-degenerative disorders. Saffron along with being a  good remedy for insomnia,it's been used for coughing, indigestion, and even baldness. The compounds of crocin, and safranel have anti- tumor effects as well. Saffron greatly boosts immunity by aiding in the maturation of white blood cells, as well as accelerating the levels of enzymes that help the body to track down, and eliminate toxins.
 
For those girls (or guys) suffering from acute premenstrual syndrome, saffron can be an answer to your prayers. It eases irritability, depression, and mood swings, symptoms typical to this syndrome. Saffron is a great blood purifier and displays anti-inflammatory properties too. For those afflicted with severe inflammatory arthritis, taking saffron can provide relief from joint pains. Saffron is also  great for athletes as it can ease fatigue, and muscle inflammation by helping tissues to get rid of lactic acid, that gets stored in joints after a hard workout. It's mild sedative properties can be safely used to provide  rest after a workout or even when you're sick with cold's or the flu. Saffron helps us by increasing oxygen content in blood, promoting over all health and well being.

So saffron does more than just add flavor, and color to food. When buying saffron, to find out whether it is fake or adulterated, immerse a tiny piece of it in warm water or milk. If the milk or water colors immediately, then it is adulterated (phoney). Genuine saffron takes about ten to fifteen minutes of soaking in warm water or milk before it can turn a deep red color, and release it's wonderful aroma. Some people may be tempted to try saffron in supplements but from what I've read this may not yield very good results. Be wary saffron supplements are notorious for having inferior ingredients and additives. Pregnant women should not take saffron, don't know why, but I've read it in more than one place. Because of it's expense, intense flavor, and strong dying properties, very little saffron is required for your cooking purposes. The key is to distribute it evenly throughout the dish being prepared. I like adding it to jasmine rice as a complement to a fish dish. It can be crushed to a fine powder with a mortar and pestle. Always opt for whole saffron threads instead of powdered saffron, as the threads tend to have more medicinal properties and the powder can be adulterated or dry or contaminated. Grind it yourself. It is always a good idea to purchase any spice or food product through a reputable source. Remember if the price seems too good to be true, chances are it isn't, and that the spice isn't really saffron. Good Luck...





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