"A man who is stingy with saffron is capable of seducing his own grandmother."
--Norman Douglas, British novelist and essayist

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(Crocus sativus)

"Thy plants are an orchard of Pomegrates, with pleasant fruits; Camphire, with Spikenard, Spikenard and Saffron" --Song of Solomon, 4:13
It's actually a guess that saffron is the meaning of karkom in the Song of Solomon--but a good one, as karkom, similar to "crocus," is Persian for "yellow." "Saffron," by contrast, comes from the Arabic sahafarn, meaning "thread." In fact, this most expensive spice in the world is composed of the yellow-orange stigmas from a small purple crocus. Each plant has exactly 3 of these little threads...and it takes some 14,000 of them to make one ounce of the stuff!

Native to the Mediterranean, it was an extremely important spice to the ancients. Ancient Egyptians sacrificed cakes of saffron to their gods. The Greeks adored it, using it to dye their hair, their textiles, and even their fingernails. It was famously sprinkled on theatrical stages...and it was Aristophanes, in The Clouds," who had one of his characters drool over a woman "redolent with saffron, voluptuous kisses, the love of spending, good cheer and of wanton delights."

Yes, saffron was famously considered an aphrodisiac, even brought into service to dye the robe hems of ancient prostitutes. And it is this association that Milton invokes in "L'Allegro" (1631?):

There let Hymen oft appear
In Saffron robe, with Taper clear,
And pomp, and feast, and revelry,
With mask, and antique Pageantry;
Such sights as youthful Poets dream
On Summer eves by haunted stream.

By the time of Alexander the Great, merchants were selling it all over Europe. Rome used it for medicinal purposes--and Nero, knowing its rarity, extravagantly ordered the streets of Rome to be strewn with it for his triumphal entry. By medieval times, one variety (primarily used to dye fabrics) was actually grown in Europe--much of it in Saffron Walden, in Essex England. Legend has it that a pigrim smuggled a corm home with him from Jerusalem, hidden in his walking stick. Shakespeare uses "saffron" to describe both a gorgeous color and a food additive. In 19th century England, saffron was used as an aromatic--reputedly giving people a pretty good high.

From earliest times, however, the most and best quality saffron came from Cilicia/Persia Empire (today, Armenia/Iran)--to the point that "Crocum in Ciliciam ferre" became a common expression, equivalent to "carrying coals to Newcastle." Now, thanks to friend Glenn Gage who sent me a huge packet of this superb saffron, I can vouch for its extraordinary quality. Thanks, Glenn!

Don't forget that saffron needs heat to release its flavor, so either crush it into hot water before using or heat it in a metal spoon over a burner, then crush it into the rest of your ingredients.