Saffron

(Crocus sativus) The original home is doubtful, but it has been cultivated from very early times; it was an article of trade on the Red Sea in the first century AD, being exported from Egypt to southern Arabia. The word Crocus, always taken to be saffron in early accounts, is from the Greek Krokos, the adjective from which, krokotos, means yellow, or dyed with saffron (Potter & Sargent). Earlier than the Greek word, though, is the Hebrew Carcom, or Karkom (Genders. 1972), mentioned in the Song of Solomon. The Arabic is Kurkum. One of the Greek origin legends tells that a youth named Crocus was changed into the flower after being accidentally killed by Mercury. Another tradition says that the crocus sprang from the spot on which Zeus once rested (Rimmel).

Saffron was being cultivated in Spain as early as AD 961, and according to legend was introduced in the reign of Edward III into England (Fluckiger & Hanbury), where it continued to be grown extensively in the eastern counties (Crafton, in Berkshire, commemorates saffron in its first syllable), though Saffron Walden is the more famous place name. The growers there were known as "crokers" (Swahn), and were cultivating it from the 14th to the end of the 18th century, and sold it as a choice drug. It was once used as a dyestuff, especially in Britain as an alternative to gold thread for church vestments. Henry VIII's knights at the Field of the Cloth of Gold had their garments coloured with saffron, and monks used it instead of gold leaf for illuminating manuscripts. "The chives steeped in water serve to illumine or (as we say) limne pictures and imagerie ." (Gerard). Cennini gave instructions for making this pigment (see Il libro dell-Arte). Saffron was even used to dye the hair a golden colour in the Middle East (Genders. 1972).

But it was more popular as a spice than as a dye, and as such was one of the chief trade commodities - it is still part of the arms of Saffron Walden. It was used a lot in cookery - warden pies were coloured with saffron in Shakespeare's time, in the same way as pears are coloured with cochineal now. In Cornwall particularly, it was used for colouring cakes, but Cornish fishermen viewed it with suspicion, for it would bring bad luck, they said; saffron cake in a boat spoiled the chance of a catch (Vickery. 1995). In 17th century England it was fashionable to use starch stained yellow with saffron, and in a cookery book of that time, it is directed that "saffron must be put into all Lenten soups, sauces, and dishes ; also that without saffron we cannot have well-cooked pies" (Fernie). It is still used for soups on the Continent, especially for the Marseilles soup called bouillebaise, in which it is an essential ingredient, as it is for the Spanish paella. In the East, it is used extensively in the more expensive curries such as chicken biriana (Brouk). And saffron itself is expensive - in Devon it is used as a figure of speech for anything costly, and a common Lincolnshire saying used to be "as dear as saffron" (Gutch & Peacock). Nevertheless, sheets in Ireland used to be dyed with it, apparently to preserve them from vermin (and to strengthen the limbs of those who lay in them) (Fernie). It is recorded that Wolsey, in order to purify the foetid air, spread the floors of his rooms at Hampton Court with rushes strongly impregnated with saffron (Dutton). But then he could afford it. It is difficult to understand why it should be a symbol of charity, which apparently it was, according to the system of Raban Maur (Haig).

Like coca, saffron enjoyed in the Aztec court the reputation of being an aphrodisiac (claimed by de Ropp, but was saffron grown in Mexico at that time?). However unlikely that may sound, there are comparable beliefs in the Old World (see Leland. 1891: "Eos, the goddess of the Aurora, was called ... the one with the saffron garment. Therefore the public women wore a yellow robe). Not unconnected was the practice of drinking saffron tea (or was it a drink merely known by that name?). It was supposed to make one vivacious and optimistic (Brouk). The Physicians of Myddfai also noted this belief: "If you would be at all times merry, eat saffron in meat or drink, and you will never be sad; but beware of eating over much, lest you die of excessive joy". See too another quote from Christopher Catton (in C P Johnson) - "Saffron hath power to quicken the spirits, and the virtue thereof pierceth by and by to the heart, provoking laughter and merriment ...". (Perhaps that was why saffron was particularly used in Lent). A habitually cheerful person was said to have slept on a sack of saffron (Coats. 1975). But it is said that saffron tea was drunk to cause an abortion. Lowestoft is mentioned as a place where this was done (M R Taylor).

It had its protective side, too. In Morocco, for instance, it was one of the plants used to drive away the juun, and it was also used as a charm against the evil eye. All evil spirits are said to be afraid of saffron, which is used in the writing of charms against them (Westermarck). Some Hebrew amulets, too, were written with a copper pen, using ink made from lilies and saffron (Budge). But it is not an inherent quality in the plant that is exploited. Rather it is the colour that is effective, especially against the evil eye. Yellow, the colour of gold, is a most effective prophylactic. So a person who wears yellow slippers, to take one example, had little to fear from other people's glances (Westermarck). The same really applies to saffron's medical uses. There is no active principle at all in saffron, and if it appears in the Pharmacopeia, it is there solely for its use as a colouring agent (Fluckiger & Hanbury). Nevertheless, it has been used quite extensively in folk medicine, as, for instance, for a leechdom for swollen eyes, or what Thomas Hill called "the distilling of eyes". The 15th century recipe required the practitioner to "stamp violet with myrrh and saffron, and make a plaster and lay thereto". Gypsies used to cure sore eyes with a wash made of spring or well water and saffron (Leland. 1891).

The most obvious example of the use of colour in saffron is in its use as a remedy for jaundice -doctrine of signatures in other words, in which the colour yellow must be regarded as the cure for the yellow disease. "Lay saffron on the navel of them that have the yellow jaundice, and it will help them" was Lupton's advice, and there are earlier jaundice cures, too. Coulton quoted two from the 14th century. Saffron also appears to have been used as a prophylactic against jaundice, for in Westphalia, an apple mixed with saffron was given on Easter Monday, against the disease (Fernie).

Saffron has been mentioned as a local remedy for tuberculosis (Fernie), but this is actually an old usage. Gerard, for instance, quotes it as a special remedy for those suffering from the disease, "and are, as wee terme it, at deaths doore, ...". Even plague could be kept at bay, according to Gerard, with saffron as one of the ingredients of a concoction that "preserveth from the pestilence, and expelleth it from those that are infected". Lesser ailments were also treated with it, boils, for instance (Wesley), or asthma (Wesley, again). The early writers were also quite sure that it "strengtheneth the heart". That was Gerard, and Parkinson. 1629 agreed. It was apparently useful to sober people up. The Physicians of Myddfai had a remedy "if you would remove a man's drunkenness, let him eat bruised saffron with spring water".

In more recent times it was widely used as an abortifacient (Schauenberg & Paris). Surely there could not have been any physiological action to make women believe that? But saffron tea is still used in American domestic medicine as a mouth wash in cases of thrush, and as a drink to cure measles in young children, or, as it was put in Ireland, "to bring out the rash" (Moloney). Lemon and sugar are added in Alabama (R B Browne). It is still used in East Anglia for fevers in children. It acts as a diaphoretic, that is, it induces sweating and so cools down the patient (V G Hatfield. 1994).

It should be borne in mind that the plant called MEADOW SAFFRON (Colchicum autumnale) has nothing to do with saffron, nor for that matter is it a Crocus, though the name Autumn Crocus is commonly used for it.

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