viernes, 18 de julio de 2014

The history of Saffron

The saffron carpels and the flowers of saffron
The gold of the cuisine. This is how the saffron has always been called, a most precious spice with an history of many millennia on its shoulders. But this way of calling is not only due to the unmistakable colour that it gives to the dishes blessed with its magical touch: it is literally as precious as gold, or even more, since its economical value per gram is actually higher than the yellow metal! In the moment I'm writing this article, the gold is valued 31 euros per gram, while saffron is valued 35 euro per gram.

We can find the first traces of the Saffron some 3500 years ago, in the Palace of Knossos, in Crete. Here we can find a fresco representing a man harvesting saffron, and the fact that such a scene is depicted in a luxurious palace tell us much about how refined was to use the saffron at the time. We know that also Phoenicians knew and commercialized saffron, and they brought this spice to the western Mediterranean, in islands like for instance Sardinia or to Spain. Making a big historical leap, it is said that Cleopatra herself, when bathing, used to add a fourth of a cup of saffron infusion, as a sign of her richness and power.

When Nero entered in Rome, it is said that was welcomed by the exhulting crowd tossing him flowers of saffron all the way until his Imperial Palace. In the ancient Rome, the saffron was used a sort of pigment and also as a sort of natural and expensive make up. The empereor Marcus Aurelius, known for his refined culture and called the "Empereor philosopher", used to have baths only in water perfumed with saffron.

After the fall of the Roman empire, the cultivation of the saffron witnessed a decay, as the rest of areas and economical sectors. Only around year 1000 the Arabs, with both commerce and conquers in the Mediterranean, brought back to western Europe this spice.

One may ask why the saffron is so expensive, and the answer is because every step is literally hand made! Every saffron flower has three carpels, each one of them has to be extracted by hand and dried. For each gram of saffron are required up to 150 carpels. The saffron used in our kitchens is a kind of saffron typical of Crete, and it is cultivated in Italy (overall in Sardinia, in Abruzzo and also in Marche, Tuscany and Umbria), in Spain (saffron of La Mancha and saffron de la Tierra of Tenerife, somewhat less tasty but also much cheaper), in Greece (in the hot and dry regions).

The risotto giallo, oro e zafferano by the starred chef Gualtiero Marchesi.
Of course, the gold of the cuisine is known for one of the most famous and celebrated dish of Italian cuisine, the risotto allo zafferano, that in milanese dialect is known as "risott giald", or "yellow risotto". A very special kind of risotto allo zafferano is the one called "risotto giallo, oro e zafferano", by the starred chef Gualtiero Marchesi. In its restaurant, "Il Marchesino", beside the first Opera House ever built in the world, the very famous La Scala theater, he offers a risotto allo zafferano...containing an actual golden leaf in it! Curiously, the golden leaf it is not the most expensive ingredient of the dish. The gold leaf is a tribute to the historical goldsmith heritage of Milan, where in the past centuries a lot of "battiloro" (goldbeaters) operated to beat the gold until obtaining a very thin leaf.

So, if you do not know how to surprise your special one, why don't you give her/him a jewel case containing some saffron instead of a very banal and cheap golden ring? :)

Just joking huh?

Golden greetings,


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