The name saffron derives from the Arabic za'faran, meaning 'yellow'. It comes from the red stigma of the autumn flowering purple Crocus Sativus. It is the most expensive spice in the world, more expensive even than gold. Each flower has to be hand picked and then the three delicate stigmas removed and carefully dried. It takes approximately 200 flowers to produce 1 gram of dried saffron.
The story of the history of saffron is interwoven with myths. Ovid wrote that Smilax changed her pursuer Crocos into a flower, leaving the red stigma as a symbol of his passion. Another myth describes Hermes, the messenger to the gods, wounding his friend Crocos by accident. Blood dripping from Crocos's head fell on the ground, where Hermes changed it into the flower. Zeus is also said to have slept on a bed of saffron.
Saffron seems to have originated in western Asia travelling from there to India. By the tenth century it was being grown by the Arabs in Spain. The Moors are said to have brought it to Italy, France and Germany by the thirteenth century.
It is thought that saffron was introduced to England in the fourteenth century. The Cornish traded their tin for Spanish saffron. It is then thought to have been grown in England around Bude. Hence the beautiful Cornish saffron bread and buns. A lovely story says that a pilgrim smuggled a saffron corm into England hidden in his hollow staff. Saffron growing became widespread in Essex and also Suffolk and Norfolk. Chipping Walden even changed its name to Saffron Walden.
Saffron has many traditional uses. It was used as a hair and clothes dye, a sign of wealth for the rich. Cleopatra is depicted bathing in a saffron bath. Saffron also has many medicinal benefits including anti-depressant and anti-cancer properties. It is also beneficial to the eyesight. Its culinary uses are many in both sweet and savoury dishes.
Today saffron is grown in many parts of the world in countries as diverse as Iran, Afghanistan, India, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and of course England.